The Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association is arguably the toughest conference in Division II football. The conference is stacked, featuring the back-to-back (and overall six-time) national champion Northwest Missouri State, as well as perennial playoff contenders like Emporia State, Central Missouri and Pittsburg State. It’s imperative to get off to a hot start.
That’s precisely what quarterback Jacob Mezera and the Fort Hays State Tigers have done.
"They run a 3-4 defense, and we don't see that very much in our conference," Mezera said. "It was difficult changing our usual game plan, but our coaches did a really good job of watching film and communicating it to us. I think we did a really good job of doing it. They're a really good team, and really tough to play every year. I'm glad we stepped up to the challenge."
It was all FHSU from the first whistle. The Tigers opened up a 21-3 lead at halftime. When the Mules came out and scored a field goal to open the scoring in the second half, Mezera quickly found Layne Bieberle to put the game out of reach for good, connecting on a 71-yard touchdown.
"Going into halftime, we thought they had the momentum," Mezera said. "We kept doing short routes and they kept jumping them. So at halftime we told our receivers that we're going to throw one deep over the top because they aren't respecting the deep ball right now. I just let it go. I got stuck on that play. I'm just laying there on the ground watching him run into the end zone. It was a great feeling taking a hit on the play and him just running into the end zone. You don't feel any hurt after that."
Thursday night was also the home opener, and Fort Hays delivered for the Tigers faithful who packed the Hays, Kansas stadium.
"It was great," Mezera said. "It's tough starting off playing Thursday night games. But the kids don't really have anything to do on a Thursday night, so it was great, the fan section last night. The town showed up, it was a packed place. I'm glad we performed well so they can see what we can do."
The Tigers are now 2-0. They have outscored their opponents by a score of 83-13. While Mezera is off to a hot start -- 472 yards passing, five touchdowns through the air to go along with one on the ground, and no interceptions -- FHSU has been balanced. The defense has been as stingy as they come, which only feeds the Tigers' offense and helps them get more comfortable.
"The past couple of years, we've relied on our defense a lot," Mezera said. "Maybe we weren't the best offensive team, and they got us on the field a lot to let us make plays. I think we're doing a really good job this year of helping each other out, special teams, offense and defense, at the same time. It's worked out really well so far."
While many teams would be able to rest and enjoy an early season upset, that isn’t the case for the Tigers. They play in the battle-tested MIAA, and Central Missouri is only the start of what’s to come. It's a long road, and to consider Fort Hays State a playoff contender may be a bit premature, but they are startng to show they are in the conversation. A November 4 showdown with Northwest Missouri is certainly on their radar.
"We're taking it one game at a time right now," Mezera said. "We knew this was pretty much a playoff game for us. Central Missouri is such a great team, this was going to determine a lot. But now we are just going to go out next week and focus on that game. The MIAA is very hard, there's no week off, we can't get complacent.
"Obviously Northwest has been the head dog for years and years now. We get talked to about that all the time. 'Northwest is doing this, what are you all going to do? Are we going to go work on routes and watch video on Sunday morning when no one has any practice or anything? Because Northwest is probably doing that." We use them as some fuel and motivation to get to where we need to be. Hopefully we can do some things this year. We'll see them towards the end of the year, and see what happens."