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Kearney, Neb. – Junior Dante Brown booted five field goals, including a 26-yarder in the second overtime, to lift 27th-ranked Fort Hays State to a 29-26 win over Nebraska-Kearney Saturday afternoon at Ron & Carol Cope Stadium at Foster Field.
A crowd of 4,910 watched the 64th all-time meeting between the Tigers (6-2) and Lopers (4-4). Hays, the defending MIAA Champion, has now won seven in a row over UNK with the Lopers having led at halftime in four of those contests. That included today’s 14-10 advantage
“We knew it was going to be a dogfight. Hays is a very good football team and we’re a good football team. It was two heavyweights going at it,” said Loper head coach Josh Lynn. “We’re going to learn from this and come out for the better moving forward.”
The last seven scores today were all field goals, four by Brown and three by UNK true freshman Brian Covarrubias (Grand Island H.S.). The seven threes all came in the final 11:15 of regulation and in overtime.
“Excellent defensive play by both teams. Special teams play was obviously big as was our one turnover there in the fourth quarter. A turnover like that on the short side of the field might’ve been the difference in the game … it led to one of their field goals,” said Lynn.
Brown entered the weekend leading Division II with 15 made field goals and he showed why as he made kicks from 22, 47 and 46 yards in regulation. His 46-yarder came with 42 seconds left in the fourth quarter and made it 23-20 Tigers.
A 2018 All-American punter, Brown made a 34-yarder in the first overtime to give Hays a 26-23 lead. However, Covarrubias responded with a 35-yarder to tie the game for the fifth time. His 39-yarder, a season-long effort, with no time remaining in regulation forced overtime.
UNK’s second offensive possession in OT didn’t go well as junior quarterback Alex McGinnis (Crete) was tackled for a two-yard loss while trying to run option to the left side. Hays then recorded another tackle for loss before McGinnis threw a nine-yard completion to junior back Darrius Webb (Allentown, Pa.) on third down.
That setup a 36-yard attempt by Covarrubias and it unfortunately went wide right. The Tigers ran the ball six straight times, picking up 16 yards, to setup Brown’s game winner.
“Outstanding effort by Brian today. He kept us in the game and made a lot of big kicks,” said Lynn.
The Lopers had two chances to win the game outright as, with eight seconds left in regulation and with no timeouts remaining, McGinnis lofted a 22-yard pass to the right corner of the Tiger end zone. The pass was intended for 6-7 receiver Trey Lansman (Harlan, Ia.) but the Tigers had him double covered and corner Aquil Knowles knocked the ball down.
“We knew we had to throw the ball. We work on situations like that every week in practice and Alex did a good job of getting the ball to Trey (Richards). He really came on today,” said Lynn. “Alex did a good job of creating and picked up a key first down to put us in a situation to score.”
After Covarrubias big kick, UNK won the OT coin doss and deferred. On third and three, Hays turned to junior receiver Harley Hazlett in the “Wildcat” formation but he was stopped for a one-yard gain. Early in the fourth quarter Hazlett capped a 13-play, 87-yard drive with a four-yard scoring run to knot the game at 17.
Just 25 yards from victory, the Lopers got a seven-yard run by Webb on first down but a McGinnis pass fell incomplete on second down. Webb was then tackled for no gain, setting up Covarrubias fourth made field. His four made field goals are the most by a Loper in 11 years and one shy of the school record.
“Here’s my approach … when I took over this job they had only one won game in two years. We’re going to go out there and try and win games. Sometimes you have to take a chances like that (late pass in regulation and going on fourth down from its own 29-yard line) and that’s what we’re going to do,” said Lynn.
UNK is now 1-6 all-time in OT games with its lone win coming back in 1997 at New Mexico Highlands, 49-48 (2 OT). The Loper have lost five straight OT games in row, including a 3 OT setback to Washburn two years ago at Cope Stadium, 47-44.
On a brighter note, UNK’s ended a dubious stretch of 11 years without a kick return for a touchdown when Webb picked up the ball at his own two-yard line, broke a tackle near the 10-yard line and raced down the right sideline for a score. That tied the game at seven as the Tigers opened the game with a seven-play, 75-yard march.
“Third week in a row we’ve caught a trick play on the very first drive. They controlled the ball and threw the short intermediate pass well. Our defense held for most of the day but that reverse pass got them going,” said Lynn.
Webb’s big return was the 471st since receiver Cory Sleeth brought back a kick 95 yards on September 1, 2007, vs. Nebraska-Omaha.
Against one of the MIAA’s top defenses, UNK finished with 332 yards in 75 plays. The Lopers also were 4 of 17 on third down. Webb had a season-high 28 carries for 149 yards with McGinnis going 9 of 25 in the air for 103 yards. Sophomore receiver Trey Richards (Hutchinson, Kan.) had his best day in a UNK uniform, snagging four balls for 63 yards.
Hays totaled 370 yards and ran 11 more plays than the Lopers. Five-nine running back D.J. Hickman had 111 yards in 24 totes with senior QB Jacob Mezera going 20 of 34 for 194 yards and one interception. Hazlett (nine recep., 93 yds.) and junior Layne Bieberle (six recep., 52 yds.) were his favorite targets. Like Kearney, the Tigers struggled on third down, converting only 6 of 17 chances.
“I’m proud of my team today. We’re moving forward and going in the right direction,” said Lynn. The Loper defense saw senior corner Famous McKinnon (Miami) make eight solo tackles and have his first career pick. It came at the Loper two-yard line late in the first quarter.
Next, junior ILB Sal Silvio (Kansas City) amassed 17 tackles (seven solo), pushing his career total to 210. His is just the 18th Loper since 1990, when tackles became a statistic at UNK, to reach the 200-career mark. Finally, junior safety Dallas Vaughn (St. Louis) had nine tackles, moving his career total to 163, with junior end Hinwa Allieu (Gaithersburg, Md.) having both of UNK’s sacks.
For the Tigers, Gretna senior safety Connor Shedeed (12) and senior ILB Jose Delgado (10) combined for 22 tackles with sophomore end Sterling Swopes making five stops (1.5 TFL’s). UNK heads to Central Missouri next weekend. That’ll be Homecoming for the Mules