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Tigers pleased with 2011 campaign

11/16/2011

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

In 2010, the Fort Hays State University football team ran a pass-happy spread offense that set multiple school and conference records, and finished sixth in NCAA Division II in passing yards per game. However, the Tigers had problems on defense, special teams and turnovers at inopportune times. The difficulties trumped the offensive firepower and led to a 3-8 season, last place finish in the MIAA, and a coaching change.

This fall, first-year coach Chris Brown had to replace more than half of his starters on both sides of the ball, including every offensive skill player that collected all-conference recognition. Brown advocated a run-first offense and physical defense that forced turnovers. The change also led to stronger special teams. The difference produced a 4-7 record, 3-6 in the MIAA. Instead of frustration like 2010, players and coaches were pleased with 2011.

"Just from the improvement that we made from Day 1 until now -- our kids have gotten a lot better, they are very well-coached, they are understanding our systems, and just the reps some of these kids have gotten, is going to make them a lot better for next year," Brown said. "I would consider it a success just because of the things they have done, the improvement they have made."

"They have come together," Brown added.

The Tigers struggled against the conference's elite and finished 0-5 against the five squads that either reached the NCAA Division II playoffs or a bowl game. However, the season changed in a 38-17 home loss to Pittsburg State University, the eventual conference champion, in Week 6. The Tigers started junior transfer Anthony Sheppard at quarterback and were tied with the Gorillas midway through the third quarter.

"Pitt State was good," junior defensive end Kyle Perry said. "We lost, but we played them tough. Coach Brown came into the locker room after the game and said he was proud of us and we stuck to the end."

Sheppard struggled in his first two games as the full-time starter, but played better in the final 31รขÑ2 games before he suffered a concussion midway through a Week 11 contest against Missouri Western State University. At the start, one aspect Sheppard was worried about was the players buying into him as the signal caller. After a Week 10 win against Missouri Southern State University, Sheppard knew he had his team's full confidence.

"I know that they trust me, and I trust them," he said. "It makes it easy, it makes it better."

He finished 79-of-136 passing with 889 yards with six touchdowns against six interceptions. He also rushed for 364 yards and four scores. From Weeks 8 to 10, Sheppard led FHSU to a 2-1 record and tallied at least 173 yards of total offense per game.

"He has done a good job," Brown said. "He is really starting to feel comfortable with our offense. Starting to read defenses a lot better than he was the first couple of weeks. His progression has gotten better each week and that's the kid we have been looking for, that's the kid we recruited that we saw on film.

"He has done a good job with it, and if he just keeps improving and getting better, he is going to be a pretty good player for us," Brown added. "He is going to be one of the best quarterbacks in this conference I believe."

The coaching change reflected a difference in the team's final numbers. FHSU went from sixth to 126th nationally in passing offense, but improved from 81st to 44th in rushing offense and averaged 189 yards a contest on the ground. FHSU saw big improvements in net punting and punt return average. The Tigers went from 79th to 37th nationally in net punting and 140th to 81st nationally in punt return average.

Despite learning a new defense, Fort Hays forced 22 turnovers -- a staple of Brown's 4-2-5 defense -- six more than 2010. Fort Hays had the fewest turnovers in the MIAA with 17, and finished plus-5 in turnover margin, better than last year's minus-4 margin.

"I think a big part of it is now we are all starting to learn our systems," Perry said of the team's improvement. "You can see we are starting to get to where other teams are -- Washburn, Northwest -- those guys have been in the system for years. We have only been in it for 11 weeks for some of them. Now, we are finally getting to where are playing as a team."


Scoreboard
Sport Date Opponent Score
2/18 SW Baptist L 66-53
12/1 Oklahoma - Panhandle L 66-60 (OT)