When discussing the elite of Division I Football Collegiate Subdivision football, South Dakota State is among those living in the high-rent district and has been for a while.
Missouri State has made tremendous strides in a short time, but is still trying to get there. Saturday’s disappointing 28-14 loss to the Jackrabbits in front of 13,189 fans at Plaster Stadium was evidence how much work remains.
South Dakota State is an FCS blueblood that plays blue collar football. There’s nothing flashy about the Jackrabbits. Just strength, smarts and toughness for days.
Despite rallying from a 14-0 deficit to tie it in the third quarter, Missouri State was unable to sustain the momentum. South Dakota State imposed its will by playing nearly mistake-free, running the ball when needed and without committing silly penalties while scoring the game’s final 14 points.
“It’s 14-all and they finished and we didn’t,” Bears coach Bobby Petrino said.
In a game billed as the biggest at home in Missouri State program history, the Bears weren’t quite ready for the bells and whistles of beating a perennial national-championship contender.
“South Dakota State was the better team today,” Petrino said. “They played well for four quarters. Against a team like that you have to be able to execute and do your job for four quarters and we weren’t able to do that.”
This was a game that had been circled on the calendar for months, a Missouri Valley Football Conference showdown where the winner would gain an early inside track in the title chase.
Game was first top-five match-up in Plaster history
Toss in the spicy ingredients of both South Dakota State and Missouri State being ranked in the FCS top five — a first top-five match-up in Plaster Stadium history — and this one had the makings of being special.
The pre-game atmosphere did not disappoint. Fans were happy and drinks in hand. Music was blaring and smiles were abundant in Bearfest Village. It had a big-game feel that everyone associated with the program has sought for decades.
There was even a fellow on the sidewalk south of the stadium holding aloft two tickets, in full scalper mode. I asked what he wanted for the upper-deck tickets, which he said offered a 40-yard-line view. He said $70 and they were mine.
I wished him luck on finding a buyer. Checking back a few minutes later, he was gone after presumably finding a taker and making a marginal profit.
Turns out there were plenty of seats to be found. The attendance total didn’t even rank among the top 10 of Bears home crowds. That was disappointing with the poor student attendance the main culprit as the west side was mostly full, at least for a while.
The Bears’ first-half performance didn’t live up to the buzz. They were downright fortunate to get to halftime trailing only 7-0 as South Dakota State held a commanding 251-36 advantage in total yards.
It felt like the score should have been lopsided.
“The defense was really good in the first half and I felt good going into halftime down only 7-0 when the offense hadn’t done anything,” Petrino said. “I think we only had 24 plays in the first half.”
Missouri State’s star quarterback Jason Shelley spent most of the first half running for his health. South Dakota State’s defense had its way against the Bears’ offensive line, sacking Shelley three times and pressuring him a half-dozen others.
But the Bears hung close as the Jackrabbits missed three field goals. Give Petrino and his staff a half to make adjustments, and you’re going to have a chance and that’s what happened.
Moving Shelley around, with roll outs and options in the third quarter the game turned — but not after a major and rare error by Shelley. The Bears drove on the first possession of the second half to the South Dakota State 10 when Shelley threw his first interception of the season, coming on his 112th pass.
Safety Colby Huerter returned it 70 yards to the Missouri State 24 and the Jackrabbits scored a couple of plays later for a 14-0 lead.
Shelley didn’t let the mistake shake him. He directed an ensuing six-play, 71-yard drive with Jacardia Wright’s 15-yard run putting the Bears on the board. Suddenly, it was 14-7 and game on.
After forcing a punt, the Bears started on their own 33 and needed only one play — Shelley’s 67-yard bomb to wide-open Raylen Sharpe — and it was 14-all. That was Sharpe’s first career reception.
Bears missed opportunities
The Bears then had a chance to grab ahold of the game when the Jackrabbits were stopped on 4th-and-1 at the Missouri State 33 as the third quarter came to an end
But Missouri State was set back by a penalty for an illegal block that Petrino after the game said he didn’t understand, was unable to convert a first down and had to punt after Shelley was sacked.
Further elaborating on the misfired possession at the key point of the game, Petrino said bluntly “that’s when we have to take it and go score.”
“We had a really good opening play and they called it a blind-side block. They looked at it for targeting and it was not targeting. They told me (from) upstairs that it wasn’t a blind-side block either. Not a lot you can do about that.
“That’s a situation where you need to go and score and take the lead.”
South Dakota State capitalized with a 70-yard, 10-play drive to go back in front. Mark Gronowski’s 21-yard pass to tight end Zach Heins put the Bears in the hole with eight minutes remaining.
The home fans were further quieted when the Bears wound up punting with just over five minutes to go. Gronowski’s fourth touchdown pass of the game, with 2:30 remaining, put it away.
The good news for the Bears is that one game in late September, win or lose, wasn’t going to make or break their season. This was a big one and their No. 4 ranking in the FCS coaches poll will take a hit, but the road to postseason play for a third straight season remains straightforward.
Playoff spot still within reach for Bears
“All our goals are still out there,” Petrino said. “The thing that’s most important is what we do now going forward.
“Any time you lose a game like that, it always challenges your togetherness as a team. We need our leadership to stay together and our team to stay together. Get on the practice field and get better.”
The Bears go to North Dakota next Saturday, where they were dominated 44-10 in the spring of 2021 playoffs. They’re a much better team now, but need to prepare and play like it.
“We have too many great players and too many great coaches to be doubting and worried about one loss,” safety Dillon Thomas said. “It hurts. We wanted to win an historic game. But it’s Week Four. We have plenty of more weeks left.”