Ryan Prickett, Sports Information Director
HAYS – A comeback win looked bleak with 6:50 remaining in the game with No. 5 Fort Hays State trailing No. 18 Central Missouri 16-6. However, a quick strike 37-yard touchdown and an unforced fumble by UCM quarterback Kyle Bradley recovered at the FHSU 4-yardline led to a thrilling comeback win for the Tigers. Jacob Mezera found Layne Bieberle on a 5-yard touchdown pass with 3:05 remaining to lift the Tigers to a 20-16 win in the season opener Thursday night (Aug. 30).
Central Missouri outgained Fort Hays State by 181 yards (508-327), but FHSU found a way late to overcome the disparity. A key moment occurred in the third quarter when UCM quarterback Brook Bolles left the game after a strong tackle from Kolt Trachsel on third down to force a punt. Bolles did not return to the game after going 14-of-22 for 197 yards passing. The Tigers were trailing 10-6 at the time.
Backup quarterback Kyle Bradley struggled to keep a Mule offense that produced 334 first half yards rolling and the Tigers were able to hang around. However, a 43-yard touchdown run on 3rd-and-7 with three minutes remaining in the third quarter made the mountain even harder to climb. An extra-point attempt went wide left, leaving Central Missouri’s lead at 16-6.
Charles Tigner became a big spark for the Tigers with just under seven minutes remaining in the game. He had a pair of nine-yard rushes and a key three-yard first down run that set up a 37-yard instant strike for a touchdown from Jacob Mezera to Jmari Davis. All of the sudden, the Tigers had life with 4:46 remaining.
Luck was on the side of the Tigers exactly a minute later when Bradley accidentally fumbled the ball taking his arm back into a throwing slot. The ball rolled free to the Fort Hays State 4-yardline where Sheldon Schmidt pounced on the ball. The Tigers needed three plays, but Mezera found Bieberle for a 5-yard touchdown pass, instantly pushing the Tigers past the Mules to a 20-16 lead.
Central Missouri barely stayed alive by picking up a first down by the nose of the football on their first set of downs following the Tiger touchdown. The Tiger faithful had to hold their breath for 13 more plays as the Mules made it out to the FHSU 46-yardline before Bradley threw an interception to Tanner Hoekman picked off at the FHSU 25-yardline. Hoekman returned the ball 34 yards before taking a knee with 13 seconds remaining. The Tigers took a knee to run out the clock from that point.
Hoekman was one of four Tigers to record at least 10 tackles on the night, joining Doyin Jibowu (12), Aquil Knowles (10), and Jose Delgado (10). Hoekman had a team-best two pass break-ups and the game’s lone interception in the waning seconds. Jibowu had one of three sacks recorded by the Tigers on the night.
Despite having an off night throwing the ball completing just 19-of-40 attempts, Mezera finished with 226 passing yards and two touchdowns. Tigner averaged 7.3 yards per rush with 80 yards on 11 carries. Layne Bieberle produced the fourth 100-yard receiving game of his career and went over the 1,000-yard mark for his career. He finished with eight catches for 112 yards.
Dante Brown had a big night in the kicking game, averaging 47.9 yards per punt. He boomed an 84-yard punt in the first quarter that tied the record for longest punt in FHSU history, matching Adam Ryan’s effort in 1997. As the placekicker, Brown knocked through field goals from 31 and 30 yards in the game that came up big in the low-scoring battle.
This was just the second time in the 15-game history of the series with Central Missouri that a team won with less than 28 points scored. Fort Hays State has now won four of its last five against UCM.
The No. 5 ranked Tigers now turn their focus to the first road contest of the season, next Thursday (Sept. 6) at Missouri Western. The game is slated to start at 7 pm in St. Joseph.