BY CAYDEN SANDERS
PHOTOS BY JESS KIRCHHOFF
Up by 21 points at halftime, the high-powered University of Nebraska-Kearney Loper offense had the game in the palm of their hands on Saturday against Fort Hays State University. However, the Lopers ran out of gas against the Tiger defense as FHSU secured essential stops and their offense got white-hot, scoring on every drive in the second half to come back and win 42-35 at Lewis Field Stadium on Homecoming.
While UNK and FHSU is a rivalry that dates back to the days of the RMAC, the game hasn’t been as much of a rivalry of late, as the Tigers have won nine out of the last matchups. UNK entered the game undefeated and ranked #12 in the nation, poised for their first win in Hays since 2005.
After trailing by 21 at halftime, the Tigers needed to hit the reset button. Quarterback Chance Fuller said he urged his defense to give him and the Tiger offense a few more stops in order to allow FHSU to get back into the game.
“We were just trying to stay calm, we knew we were hurting ourselves,” Fuller said. “I went around the locker room telling the defense I have their back, I just need a couple stops and that’s what they did, and as an offense, we put it all together and it was our turn to have their back and to win this ball game.”
Fort Hays received the ball and start the second half at their 19-yard line. Fuller found wide receiver Alex Schremmer to gain 36 yards on the play and then put the ball in Manny Ramsey’s hands to advance the drive. The Tigers finally found the endzone on a 29-yard touchdown pass from Fuller to his tight end Hunter Budke.
The drive went 81 yards on seven plays.
After UNK scored again to push the margin back to 21, Fort Hays opened their next drive with another Fuller to Ramsey connection to get to the midfield. After a Fuller 20-yard scramble, Voshon Waiters got a chance in the game and took advantage with a 10-yard first-down run, setting up a Fuller 17-yard touchdown pass to Schremmer.
UNK answered yet again with a six-play, 79-yard TD drive to go back up by 21 points. However, FHSU’s defense held UNK from the endzone the remainder of the game – the Tigers just needed to rely on their offense to get the job done.
“We felt that we just needed a few stops, and that was our thought,” Head Coach Chris Brown said. “ If our defense could just get a few stops our offense would take care of the rest of the game, and that is what happened. We got some big plays when we needed it and once we got that one stop we knew we had a chance to win this game.”
FHSU’s ensuing drive started with a big kick return from Adrian Soto setting up another Fuller to Ramsey touchdown. A Loper punt put the ball back in the Tigers’ hands at the 50-yard line. A quick four-play, 54-yard drive pulled FHSU within seven after Waiters connected with Budke for Waiters’ first touchdown of the game. Waiters – who has played behind Fuller for the past two seasons – stepped in and played well in his moment, something Fuller knew was always possible.
“Bubba [Waiters] that’s my guy, he is one of the best quarterbacks in this conference, I think anyone on this team trusts him with anything,” Fuller said. “He made some great plays and he is a key part of our offense, and we have a great relationship, so I am happy for him and I am sure he is happy for me getting this win together.”
With their lead trimmed to just seven, UNK failed to move the chains resulting in FHSU gaining another possession. Trailing by a single touchdown, the Tigers marched down the field and into the red zone after a 22-yard pass from Fuller to Schremmer. Fuller nearly got into the endzone on a nine-yard run, but Keylan Chapman punched it in from one-yard out to even the game, 35-35.
The Fort Hays faithful roared their rendition of “In Heaven there is no Beer” – a Volga German tradition exemplified by this weekend’s Oktoberfest celebration – as the Tigers forced another UNK change of possession. On third down, Jhimon Preston sacked UNK quarterback TJ Davis, forcing another punt.
With 3:05 on the clock, the Tiger offense had time for one last drive. Chapman provided the spark, erupting for a 31-yard run to set FHSU up on the UNK goal line. Brown called Chapman’s number on the next play, and the junior back plunged into the endzone for the second time, giving the Tigers the lead, 42-35.
FHSU’s defense erased any chance on UNK scoring an equalizer, as FHSU defensive back Devin White picked off Davis, ensuring the Tigers’ comeback victory.
“This is one of the best comebacks I have been a part of, we were down. At halftime we talked about are we going to be men here or are we going to quit? Our guys just came out and battled that second half, “ Brown said. “I am so proud of our guys for how hard they played, Other teams would have laid down in that situation but with us, we didn’t and I think that Tiger football is back and see how if we put everything together then we will come out and win the football game.”
After a slow start, the Tiger offense exploded in the second half. FHSU compiled 567 yards of total offense, including 361 yards through the air. Fuller accounted for 345 of those yards through the air on 22-32 while also netting 38 yards on the ground.
Soto led FHSU’s rushing attack with 98 yards on the ground and four Tigers had 80+ yards receiving, led by Schremmer’s 98 yards and one touchdown. Budke had two touchdown catches and 82 yards.
The official attendance for the game was over 6,700 in the stands, a number that was noticed on the FHSU sideline.
“As a coach, you notice it, just because of the noise. Having the enthusiasm and the crowd cheering when we have a big play on offense or causing chaos when opponents or on offense causing problems hopefully helping them make mistakes, and you do hear it,” FHSU Head Coach Chris Brown said. “I am so proud of our fans and so thankful for our fans because we have the best fans in America.”
Fuller also noticed the crowd’s impact on the game.
“Seeing this community come out and having fun, like you said even the Kearney fans came out to the game and getting loud is just a great site to have for a homecoming game seeing all the support we get from everyone,” Fuller said. “Tiger Faithful had a big part of our success tonight and we want people to keep coming and we will keep winning.”
FHSU moves to 3-2 on the season while UNK drops to 4-1. The Tigers next play in Topeka against the Ichabods of Washburn on October 9. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m.