HAYS, Kan. — A broken down bus in Manhattan, Kansas, on the way to Lewis Field Stadium on Wednesday was the only trouble Missouri Western found across the stateline.
Missouri Western held No. 25 Fort Hays State to just 14 yards on 22 carries, and Wyatt Steigerwald threw for 197 yards and two touchdowns as the Griffons beat a ranked Tiger team for the second straight year 28-17 on Thursday.
It’s the first win against a ranked opponent on the road since 2013.
“It means the world to us,” said sophomore DJ Sturgis, who thwarted a potential comeback-starting drive with a goal-line interception in the third quarter. “We came together as a team and played as one. We knew they were gonna be passing it alot, but we knew we could stop it.”
Tigers quarterback Chance Fuller threw for 333 yards on just 23-of-49 passing. Steigerwald finished with a 17-for-29 day and two second-quarter scores.
Fort Hays State found the early rhythm after a 50-yard pass by Fuller to Dandre Reed on its opening drive. The Griffons held strong on a goal-to-go situation, holding Dante Brown to a field goal and Fort Hays to a 3-0 lead and setting the tone for the day.
“Our defense got in some tough positions real early and played phenomenal with the situations,” Western coach Matt Williamson said. “All-in-all, it was a good performance.”
Danger struck the Griffons’ special teams when Trey Vaval returned a punt and coughed up the ball mid-return at his own 37. The Tigers would take over, but Brown missed a 49-yard field goal and gave Missouri Western momentum.
Wyatt Steigerwald put the Griffons on the board with a 37-yard toss to Damen Wheeler Jr. on third-and-11, giving the Griffons a 7-0 lead.
“That was a confidence booster,” Steigerwald said. “We know we can do it. There’s a difference in going out there and actually doing it. Damen ran a great route and made a great adjustment on the ball and a great catch from here.”
Anthony Vespo would go three-and-out at quarterback the ensuing drive, but fortune returned to the Griffons on special teams. Layne Bieberle tried to get out of the way of the punt and touched the ball, giving the Griffons possession at the 20 after a recovery by Anthony Williams.
The next play saw Steigerwald find an open Kyle Berry in the end zone for a 14-3 lead.
“That was big time. It’s exciting to get those touchdowns and get out to a lead,” Steigerwald said. “During the second half, we’ve gotta learn to really put them away. We let a team hang around with us and maybe we don’t get the W next time, but there’s stuff to be excited about.”
Following a Fort Hays three-and-out, Western ended a drive with a spinning 12-yard rushing score by Shamar Griffith to push the lead to 21-3 at the half.
Fort Hays would pull within 21-9 on a passing score, but the Griffons responded with Markel Smith’s first touchdown as a Griffon, a 6-yard plunge with 3:22 to play.
A final passing score with 2:18 brought the final score to 28-17, with the Griffons coming out without an offensive turnover.
“Those turnovers cost us last week against a good team, so I couldn’t let that happen twice in a row,” Steigerwald said. “Glad to come in and get the W against a good team. We’re resilient and mentally tough. We definitely got stuff to clean up, but a win’s hard anywhere you go.”
The brutal stretch won’t end as the Griffon host top-25 foe Central Missouri (2-0), who is coming off a 70-7 pummeling at Northeastern State.
“That’s the MIAA. We’re excited for the challenge,” Steigerwald said. “It’s the best D-II conference in America.”
On the matchup, Sturgis added, “We’re unranked and we’re trying to make the statement we should be ranked.”