Missouri State quarterback Jason Shelley saw lots of white Southern Illinois jerseys on Saturday. He was sacked six times in the Bears’ 38-21 loss at Plaster Stadium. (Photo: Missouri State Athletics)

OPINION |

On a beautiful autumn Saturday for football, Missouri State had an equally gorgeous start to a key Missouri Valley Football Conference game against Southern Illinois.

Looking to snap a three-game losing streak and get its season of once-great expectations back on the rails, Missouri State looked unbeatable over the first eight minutes in taking a 14-0 lead.

This looked like a complete runaway. Jacardia Wright was running like a power back with speed and All-America quarterback Jason Shelley — aside from one early mistake — looked to be on top of his game.

It looked like the team that everyone was excited about with a top-five preseason ranking in the Football Championship Subdivision. The Bears had a 136 to minus-11 advantage in total yards, for crying out loud.

What happened over the next couple of hours at Plaster Stadium, you almost had to see to believe. Southern Illinois reeled off 38 unanswered points as the Bears fell apart.

The final carnage was Salukis 38, Bears 21. 

At least the weather was nice and the concession stands, unlike a couple of weeks earlier, were fully stocked. 

Coach Bobby Petrino offered no excuses after his Bears fell to 2-4 overall and 0-3 in the Valley.

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‘We’re not playing very good football’

“Right now we’re not playing very good football,” Petrino said. “We’re having trouble stopping people, we’re having trouble tackling and having trouble getting off the field.

“Offensively, we can’t be consistent because we have negative plays and get sacked and get our quarterback hit. It’s hard to play quarterback when you’re getting hit. He’s not executing as well as he normally does, either.”

The first half was bizarro world as Missouri State was tremendous early, rolling to a 14-0 lead before everything flipped and Southern Illinois reeled off the final 17 points of the first half.

Jacardia Wright was an early bright spot for Missouri State, rushing for a first quarter touchdown. Wright finished with 83 rushing yards and two TDs. (Photo: Missouri State Athletics)

“I thought we had a good plan and came out in the first quarter and executed it,” Petrino added. “Jacardia ran the ball really well. We had some good play-action passes. Then we kind of got overpowered and overwhelmed the rest of the game.”

The Bears’ once-lopsided advantage in total yards turned into a 197-129 Salukis edge by halftime. Things didn’t get any better for the home team.

It took Southern Illinois only 2:39 to drive 66 yards for a touchdown to begin the second half, for a 24-14 lead. That fabulous start for the Bears seemed like a distant memory by this point.

The Bears managed one first down before a sack derailed their next possession. A punt pinned Southern Illinois at its own four, but the Salukis responded with a clock-eating 96-yard, 14-play touchdown drive to make it 31-14.

“It’s been the same formula that beats us,” Petrino said. “The defense can’t stop the run so they keep running the ball, getting second-and-four or third-and-two. We can’t get off the field and the offense sits over on the sideline, and when you do get an opportunity, you’re not able to score enough or every time.

“In the last three games, we’ve had less than 60 plays on offense.”

Before the third period was over, Southern Illinois struck again with a 41-yard TD bomb from Nic Baker to D’Ante’ Cox and it was 38-14. Only a fraction of the announced crowd of 7,064 remained.

Southern Illinois’ dominance was shocking. Missouri State’s collapse was stunning. 

The Bears finally found the scoreboard again with 6:04 remaining, as Wright scored on a two-yard run. By then, it was long over.

Southern finished with a 419-285 advantage in yardage — 430-149 after the Bears opened with the 14-0 lead.

Failed fourth down try was turning point

A turning point, if there is such a thing in a game with a 17-point difference, came with the Bears leading 14-0. Facing 4th-and-2 from the Southern Illinois 46, Petrino showed supreme confidence in his team by opting to go for it.

An incomplete pass gave it back to the Salukis — and the visitors responded with a five-play, 54-yard drive to cut the lead in half.

After Missouri State went nowhere on its next possession, the Salukis took it 57 yards to tie it as Javon Williams scored on 4th-and-goal from the 1. 

The 180-degree shift in momentum that began with the failed fourth-down try led to a 17-14 Salukis’ halftime lead. Had the Bears converted the fourth down, and gone on to score, the course of the game might have been different.

“I thought we had a good play,” Petrino said. “We saw what they had defensively and had the match-up we wanted. Their guy just did a great job of covering it. We hit the perfect coverage … but weren’t able to beat the one-on-one coverage.”

The Bears entered Saturday’s game ranked No. 20 in the FCS. They will fall out of the top 25 in upcoming days and must reel off five straight wins to finish the regular season for any shot at making the playoffs for a third straight season under Petrino.

There are obvious issues to fix and they may or may not have the personnel, healthy or otherwise, to do it. Shelley, 15 of 25 for 195 yards and two interceptions, was sacked six times and hit at least that many more. His sack total this season is an unacceptable 29. 

The Bears’ defense, after two early sacks, failed to pressure Salukis quarterback Nic Baker the rest of the day as Baker went 21 of 30 for 253 yards and two touchdowns. Missouri State is surrendering an average of 38 points the last four games.

Week off to regroup

The Bears get a needed week off to regroup before playing at Northern Iowa on Oct. 22. The coaches and players have things to figure out, mentally and physically.

“Losing is hard. It challenges your attitude and it challenges your commitment,” Petrino said. “We’ve got to work at continuing to be able to practice hard and work to get better. Our players put a lot of energy into this game.”

Offensive tackle and co-captain Landon Bebee said it’s important for the players to stick together to have any chance of making a successful stretch run.

“The main thing is we have to make sure that we’re playing for each other,” Bebee said. “Offensive guys playing for the defense, defensive guys playing for the offense. 

“You just have to be positive with everything — even if you don’t feel like being positive that day. You have to make sure you’re keeping guys’ heads up, letting them know … I think we’re a great team. We’re obviously not doing the little things right. Once we start doing those things, I think we’ll start taking off.” 

Time is running out. 

Lyndal Scranton

Lyndal Scranton is a Springfield native who has covered sports in the Ozarks for more than 35 years, witnessing nearly every big sports moment in the region during the last 50 years. The Springfield Area Sports Hall of Famer and live-fire cooking enthusiast also serves as PR Director for Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Missouri, co-hosts The Sports Reporters on Jock 96.9 FM, 99.9 FM and 1060 AM on Monday mornings with Ned Reynolds and is co-host of the Tailgate Guys BBQ Podcast. Contact him at Lscranton755@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @LyndalScranton. More by Lyndal Scranton