Each week David Boyce, the MIAA’s featured writer, will cover a key match-up in one of the conference’s sports. In this week’s MIAA Showcase, Boyce covered football’s match-up between Fort Hays State at No. 10 Northwest Missouri.
MARYVILLE, Mo. – Fort Hays State excelled on defense. The Tigers made plays on offense. But they needed a little more than that to forge a first-place tie in the MIAA against perennial national power Northwest Missouri State.
A blocked extra point by senior Malik Young in the opening minutes of the third quarter turned out to be the difference in Fort Hays’ slim 17-16 road victory Saturday at Bearcat Stadium against Northwest Missouri.
It was an overall team victory for Fort Hays.
“I am just ecstatic, the happiest you can be, knowing you played a great game against a great team and you still came out on top,” said Fort Hays junior wide receiver Harley Hazlett, who caught 13 passes for 121 yards and a touchdown.
The win lifted Fort Hays to 8-2. Northwest Missouri dropped to 8-2. A conference title and a spot in the NCAA Division II playoffs are at stake in the final week of the regular season. Fort Hays plays at home against Northeastern State. Northwest goes on the road and faces the University of Central Missouri.
“I am so proud of them,” Fort Hays coach Chris Brown said. “It is so hard to come here and win. We have done it two years in a row. Our kids just believe in themselves; they are playing for each other and have each other’s back day in and day out.”
The Tigers definitely showed that togetherness early in third quarter when they needed it.
After going into halftime on a high note, Northwest Missouri started the third quarter still singing a good tune.
The Bearcats quickly showed that getting one first down in the first half was a fluke. In the opening drive of the third quarter, Northwest Missouri put together three first downs and that led to a 78-yard touchdown drive that ended with a 19-yard pass from freshman Braden Wright to sophomore wide receiver Alec Tatum.
The pass play gave Northwest Missouri its first lead of the game at 16-14. But the extra point was blocked.
“I didn’t think it was going to be too big of a play,” Young said. “It was a good feeling because the momentum had switched so that was something we needed to pick us up.”
Fort Hays responded the first time it touched the ball in the third quarter. The Tigers moved the ball 49 yards and got in position for Dante Brown’s go-ahead 42-yard field goal with 9:08 remaining in the third quarter.
“To be honest, he makes those all the time so it wasn’t a shock to me,” Young said.
Harley thought it was crucial for the Tigers to battle back and regain the lead right after they fell behind.
“We have always been able to fight adversity,” Hazlett said. “Their touchdown happened quickly. We just knew we had to respond. The way the team handled it was absolutely amazing because we knew it was going to be very limited points so we made something happen and got points.”
Fort Hays went into halftime with a 14-10 lead, but all the momentum belonged to Northwest Missouri.
On defense, Fort Hays completely dominated the Bearcats in the first two quarters. Northwest Missouri didn’t get a first down until 4:53 remained in the second quarter, and it was the Bearcats’ only first down in the half.
Fort Hays couldn’t have done much better on the defensive side, limiting Northwest to 31 yards in 27 plays.
“They have played well all year long,” Brown said. “They have been keeping offenses in check. That was a very good offense we just went against. I am proud of the way they competed each down. The physicality they played with in the second half I am very proud of.”
The Tigers also made a couple of nice pass plays in the first quarter to build a 14-0 lead. The first touchdown came with 6:51 left in the first quarter when freshman quarterback Chance Fuller connected with Hazlett on a 5-yard pass play.
Fort Hays ballooned its lead to double digits with 1:17 remaining in the first quarter when Fuller tossed his second touchdown, hooking up with junior Layne Bieberle on a 25-yard pass play.
“It was huge,” Fuller said of the early lead. “We knew we needed some momentum. It worked.”
Fuller showed a lot of guts throughout the game, taking some big hits. After each hit, Fuller popped back up and still made plays.
“I am hurting, but we won so it overcomes that,” Fuller said after the game
Meanwhile, the Bearcats couldn’t get anything going on offense. An interception by Northwest Missouri senior safety Jack Richards gave the Bearcats the ball at Fort Hays’ 13.
Northwest could only muster 5 yards of offense and had to settle for a 25-yard field goal by sophomore Parker Sampson.
“We knew it was going to be a tough team,” said Fort Hays senior linebacker Jose Delgado, who finished with 10 tackles. “Northwest is a big name. We had to come here and compete.
“Our defense starts up front. They stopped the run so that didn’t give them any confidence there so they had to start passing. Our defensive backs locked them up. We shut them down both ways.”
The play that hurt Fort Hays and boosted Northwest came with just under 2 minutes left in the first half. Senior Shawn Bane Jr. took a low line drive punt and darted 53 yards downfield, weaving through a few would-be tacklers and into the end zone.
Despite outgaining the Bearcats 146 yards to 31 and getting 10 first downs while limiting Northwest to one, Fort Hays held just a four-point lead at halftime. But that cushion was enough for the Tigers to come away with a victory.