It was halftime, and the Lincoln Blue Tigers were trailing 38-12 on Saturday afternoon at Dwight T. Reed Stadium.
The Blue Tigers trailed by the same score in their season opener against Washburn, then were outscored 38-0 in the second half. Fort Hays State outscored the Blue Tigers 35-0 in the second half, and Central Oklahoma won the scoring battle 35-14 after halftime against Lincoln.
Saturday was the first time Lincoln outscored its opponent in the second half this season, closing the final margin to 52-32 against Missouri Southern on Homecoming. The Blue Tigers outscored the Lions 20-14 after halftime, and although that extra touchdown didn't affect the outcome, it was a far cry from their second-half performance against Washburn.
"We just seem to execute better as the game goes along," Hoskins said. "A lot of times, we've dug ourselves a hole, and it's just hard digging out."
Missouri Southern scored on its first four possessions, building a 24-0 lead, while Lincoln accumulated just one first down on its first three offensive series.
When the Blue Tigers went into the locker room, Hoskins opted not to address the team.
"I was so frustrated, I didn't want to say the wrong thing," he said. "So I allowed the coaches to make their corrections."
Lincoln's offense had nine first downs in the first half. The Blue Tigers doubled that total by the end of the third quarter.
After punting on its first possession of the second half, Lincoln grinded out a 15-play, 76-yard drive that ended with a 6-yard touchdown run by Hosea Franklin. Samuel Ignoli caught the 2-point conversion pass to make the score 38-20 with 2:47 left in the third quarter.
The Lincoln offense executed much better in the second half, producing 288 yards after halftime to finish the game with 443 total yards. It was a much improved performance for the offensive line, which allowed back-to-back third-down sacks to start the game but only allowed one more sack the rest of the afternoon.
"We've got six offensive linemen that we'll play," Hoskins said. "The way that those kids continue to battle each week through all the adversity, it's where we want to catapult this program."
Both of Missouri Southern's touchdowns in the second half came on big plays: a 61-yard touchdown run by Josh Mercer and a 72-yard pass from Dawson Herl to Brian Boyd Jr., extending the Lions' lead to 52-20 early in the fourth quarter.
Lincoln followed with its first big scoring play of the day. On first-and-10 at the Blue Tiger 35-yard line, quarterback Zamar Brake launched a deep pass to Aderias Ealy near the Lion 20-yard line.
Ealy tipped the ball in the air, but couldn't haul it in. Luckily, teammate Charles Johnson was in the vicinity, catching the tipped ball and running it the final 20 yards for a 65-yard touchdown reception.
"Here's how I know things are changing," Hoskins said. "In the past, we don't make those plays. We would have kids who would give up on it. But we have kids on the offensive side of the ball that want to make plays. Their mindset has shifted, it has changed. They just want to make plays, and you're seeing the result of it."
Brake threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to Ingoli with 3:00 remaining to make the final margin 20 points. It's the second time the Blue Tigers outscored their opponent in a half this season. The other time was Sept. 25 at home against Northeastern State, when Lincoln led 13-6 at halftime.
But that's only a moral victory, and Hoskins is getting tired of hyping moral victories.
"I am sick of moral victories," he said. "But the old Lincoln, or the Lincoln in the past, would have totally shut it down at halftime. This young group continues to battle. Things just keep happening that we can't overcome, but they continue to fight, they continue to battle.
"The energy is infectious, and it's coming from the younger guys. That's who is leading us right now, the freshmen. I think we're onto something, I just want it to happen right now, and it's just not happening fast enough."
The Lincoln defense forced Missouri Southern to punt three times in the second half, and outside of the two long touchdowns, the Blue Tigers gave up just 78 additional yards to the Lions after halftime.
"But it's just not enough to put us in a position where we're going to win football games," Hoskins said. "In the first half, we couldn't get off the field on third down."
In the first half, Piere' Jones intercepted a pass from Herl, who had attempted 138 passes without throwing an interception. It was also just the third turnover in six games by the Lions.
"In the past, that probably would've been a touchdown," Hoskins said. "But Piere' did a really good job of getting in position and making the interception. That's a win for us, and as a head coach, I'm trying to build on the successes we have."
Offensively, things continue to look up for the Blue Tigers, who have averaged 36 points in their past three games.
Franklin had his third straight 100-yard rushing performance, finishing with 23 carries for 138 yards. The junior running back from Memphis, who was the MIAA rushing champion in 2019, surpassed 2,000 career yards rushing in Saturday's loss.
"Right now, he's true to form on what he was in 2019," Hoskins said. " He comes to the sideline and he's smiling. It doesn't matter what's going on in the football game, he's smiling. He keeps me grounded on the sideline, and he'll say, 'Coach, we're fine.'
"I appreciate him as a football player and I also appreciate him being a very mature young man with what we're facing, because if anybody should be frustrated, it should be him."
Brake finished 19-of-30 passing for 251 yards with three touchdowns and a pick-6.
"We supposedly play the same defense that Missouri Southern runs, so we saw this defense in camp and we knew where the holes were going to be," Hoskins said. "We knew that we had to protect him, and that he had to be accurate and consistent."
In five games, Brake has thrown for 1,230 yards, more than halfway to the Lincoln single-season passing record of 2,076 yards, set by Jacob Morris in 2013. If Brake reaches that mark, the Blue Tigers would have their single-season passing and rushing record-holders on the same roster.
But the second half of Lincoln's schedule will make that accomplishment difficult, as three of the Blue Tigers' final five games come against teams with a 3-3 record or better.
Up next is Saturday's road matchup against Pittsburg State, which nearly knocked off No. 2 Northwest Missouri. The Bearcats had to rally Saturday to escape with a 20-19 win against the Gorillas.
"This thing is not going to get any easier," Hoskins said. "It's going to get harder. It's going to test our character, it's going to test our resolve."