Tigers mauled in second half
By CONOR NICHOLL
Coach Chris Brown sat at the postgame press conference table and quickly ran through the list of Fort Hays State University players that had veteran experience prior to Thursday's season opener against Emporia State University. Brown named fewer than 10.
He is well aware the Tigers have just 13 seniors, a brand new quarterback and multiple junior college transfers starting for the first time. Even defensive back, considered a strong point, had transfers Derek and Nathan Lindsey and two 2012 backups, Andreas Ashwood and Raheeme Dumas, playing in a key role.
The inexperience contributed to a 43-13 Tiger loss at Lewis Field Stadium. Emporia State, coming off a 10-2 season and receiving votes in the national poll, held a 591-207 yardage edge.
"A lot of new faces, and a lot of guys who haven't played in this conference," Brown said. "They woke up real fast to see the type of competition that was in this conference. We will bounce back. These kids are focused, they play hard."
Junior wideout Austin Willis caught nine passes for 216 yards and three scores - against three different FHSU defensive backs.
"It will definitely be a learning experience," said sophomore linebacker Justin McPhail, the game leader with 14 tackles. "Yeah, we lost, but we are just going to have to move on and take it as a learning experience and prepare for Washburn. We can't hang our heads."
Emporia took a 17-0 lead on a 30-yard pass from sophomore Brent Wilson with 2 minutes, 22 seconds left in the first half. FHSU had just 113 first-half yards and finished 1 of 7 on third-down conversions at intermission.
"Now everybody sees how it is," sophomore quarterback Treveon Albert said. "Emporia is not even the best team in the conference. You've got to bring it this week and the next week and the next week. Got to be prepared to go every single day."
Wilson made his first career start after he took over for all-region quarterback Tyler Eckenrode, ESU's all-time leader in multiple passing statistics. Willis drew a defensive pass interference penalty on Daniel Lindsey in the end zone, but still held onto the ball.
Early in the third quarter, Fort Hays closed the score to 17-6 after Ashwood blocked a punt and Albert threw a 6-yard TD pass to senior Keaton Callins. Then the Hornets moved the lead to 20-6 after Willis caught a 64-yard pass on a blown coverage to set up a field goal. The speedy Willis was wide-open down the right sideline.
"To be honest, it wasn't really him," Ashwood said. "He is a great player. It was a little bust in our coverages. ... We could have did a better job in the coverage that we were in. By us not doing that, it made it easier for him."
FHSU could have closed the game to one score on the next possession, but freshman Bilal Silat dropped a wide-open deep pass. FHSU eventually punted.
"It's college, so we have got to hold everybody accountable for everything," Albert said. "He is also a freshman. As far as me, we've got to tell them, 'Look, those got to be caught. That's a big play. That's a big part of the game as well. That could be the turnaround.' He is young, and I know he knows. He is fast, so he will have plenty more of opportunities just like it."
Emporia followed with a 64-yard touchdown to Willis, who beat Ashwood for the score for a 27-6 lead with 9:17 remaining in the third quarter. Since the Hornets went to NCAA Division II in 1991, Willis had the third most receiving yards by an ESU player. The three receiving scores tied the Emporia State Division II mark. Wilson finished 21 of 29 for 301 yards and three TDs.
"A few misreads, a few cues, maybe just a few broken coverages as well. A lot of those guys haven't played in this conference," Brown said.
FHSU closed the game to 27-13 on a 27-yard pass from Albert to Callins midway through the third quarter. Albert struggled with the deep ball throughout camp, but showed an improved touch. He finished 15 of 28 for 163 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Running back Andre and Edward Smith combined for 12 carries and 21 yards and five catches for 29 yards against the Hornets' defense that played man coverage on the wideouts and often packed seven into the box that made the run game difficult.
"They all came in and played very well," Callins said of the young wideouts. "You can tell they had butterflies starting out. Me and (senior) Tanner (Hageman) had to calm them down."
ESU effectively put the game out of reach on Willis' final score, a 28-yard pass for a 33-13 lead with 5:12 remaining in the third quarter. This time, Willis beat Dumas deep for the TD. FHSU travels to Washburn next week; the Ichabods defeated University of Nebraska-Kearney 58-13.
"Some players are just not ready for the conference yet, so this was a wakeup call for them," Albert said. "Now they know next game, you've got to be ready."