HAYS — Fort Hays State University senior running back Kenneth Iheme, even after a 34-7 rout of Emporia State University at home Saturday, reiterated the fact the Tiger offense has yet to find its full rhythm.
Despite the fact FHSU is second in the MIAA at 36.1 points per outing and has the league’s fourth best rushing attack, Iheme said “We haven’t just completely played a full four quarters. But once we get that together the sky is really the limit for us.”
It might take the Tigers’ best effort this week — and then some.
And still, that might not be enough.
When No. 6 ranked FHSU takes on No. 8 ranked Northwest Missouri State University on Saturday in Maryville, Mo., they’ll try to figure out a team virtually no one has been able to this season.
If what has driven the Tigers’ and Bearcats’ success this season is any indication, Saturday’s game that likely will decide the MIAA championship easily could come down to defense.
Northwest Missouri boasts the nation’s best scoring defense, allowing just 8.7 points per game, even after losing on the road last week at Pittsburg State University. The loss snapped Northwest’s 38-game winning streak.
Furthermore, no team has found the end zone in the ground game against the Bearcats this season, and no running back has put up 100 yards in a game against Northwest since 2014. Northwest Missouri (8-1) has only given up nine touchdowns all year.
“They don’t give up the big play,” FHSU coach Chris Brown said. “They keep everything up front, pressure very hard and get their hands on receivers well.”
Northwest Missouri only has allowed 450 total rushing yards (50 per game), giving up just a little more than 200 total yards per game.
“It’s solid just like it was last year,” Brown said of the Northwest defense, which helped the Bearcats capture the Division II national championship a year ago. “We have to find ways to attack them, keep them off-balance, and hopefully get our run game going.”
Of course, Saturday’s likely title tilt is not just all about Northwest’s defense. A fairly new group of Tigers has flexed its muscle often this season. Last week against Emporia State, the Tigers kept the Hornets off the board until the final six minutes of the game. FHSU is second in the conference (16th nationally), allowing just 14.8 points per game. They also sit second in yards allowed at 289 per contest (83.8 rushing). The Tigers have 20 sacks and seven interceptions.
Like the offense, though, members of the Tiger defense feel as though there is room for improvement. FHSU wants the designation of being that top team.
“I don’t think we’ve played our best defense yet,” sophomore Kolt Trachsel said. “Coaches have been telling us we could possibly be the best team in this conference. We just have to keep getting better and better.”
Saturday’s contest will determine which defense is better, further solidifying the thought that “defense wins championships.”
The Tigers like their chances.
“It’s crazy, but I wouldn’t want it any other way,” said Tiger sophomore Tanner Hoekman. “I’d put my defense up against anybody else’s. I’m excited to see what happens.”