Missouri State coach Bobby Petrino said the Bears’ defense was terrific and the offense a bit sloppy in the season-opening 27-14 victory at Central Arkansas. (Missouri State Athletics file photo)

OPINION |

Prior to Thursday night, the last Missouri State football game I followed as a sports reporter was Halloween of 2015, a dismal and gray day at Plaster Stadium as the Bears lost to South Dakota State 38-0.

That dropped the Bears to 1-7 and they eventually finished 1-10, outscored by opponents 535-108. To call it a miserable season would be too kind.

Goodness, how times have changed.

Just for fun, imagine being asleep for nearly seven years and awakening to learn that:

  • Bobby Petrino is coaching at Missouri State.
  • The Bears are coming off back-to-back playoff appearances, under Petrino.
  • They are ranked No. 5 in the Football Championship Subdivision preseason poll.

My former sports reporter-self, who saw this program for so many years, would inquire what you had been drinking and ask for a swig. 

These are exciting times for Missouri State football, coached by one of the masterminds of the college game, being billed as a legit national-championship contender.

It’s almost one of those it-seems-too-good-to-be-true scenarios. Maybe that’s why, after covering Bears football for a quarter century that was filled with mediocrity and worse, count me as a bit skeptical as the season of great expectations kicked off on the ugliest rug in college football.

Well, you can now count me as convinced that what we’re watching is more than a dream. These new-age Bears of Coach Bobby Petrino are legit-good with a 27-14 victory over Central Arkansas in Conway as the first step to what could be a memorable fall.

Jason Shelley led the way in Missouri State’s victory over Central Arkansas, with 317 yards of total offense. He passed for one touchdown and rushed for another. (Missouri State Athletics file photo)

Quarterback Jason Shelley was outstanding in his season debut, just as he was a year ago. Shelley looked the part of a player nominated in preseason for the Walter Payton Award for top player in the FCS, passing for 266 yards and rushing for 51. He threw for one touchdown and rushed for another.

Go-to receiver Ty Scott caught eight passes for 160 yards, most of that coming in a big second quarter when Missouri State seized control. 

Defensively, Anthony Payne had two of the Bears’ seven sacks. Montrae Braswell had six tackles, broke up a pass and returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown. 

Not that it started well. Not at all. The Bears of 2022 looked more like the ones from 2015 in a scoreless first quarter as Shelley ran for his life from onrushing defenders, the Bears lost a fumble, committed two personal foul penalties and managed only two first downs.

COLUMN CONTINUES BELOW

Bears defense was marvelous

Fortunately, the Missouri State defense was marvelous. It held Central Arkansas in check until Shelley and Co. found its rhythm, which can and often does take some time in a season opener.

“That’s a great win and we’re happy for it,” Petrino said, leading off his post-game show on the Missouri State Radio Network. “I learned our defense is still really good. They did a great job, competed and tackled well. 

“They put a lot of pressure on the quarterback and played really well, almost all four quarters.

“Offensively, I wasn’t as happy,” Petrino added, noting two turnovers — one leading to a short fourth-quarter Central Arkansas touchdown drive — and four sacks allowed. “I thought we were a little bit sloppy. 

“Certainly, there’s a lot of video for us to learn from.”

Momentum gained at end of first half

Missouri State scored 17 points in the final six minutes of the first half. It delivered the crushing hit to the team that plays on a hideous-looking gray-and-purple field just before halftime. After Shelley ran for a 5-yard touchdown 65 seconds before the break, making it 10-0, Tahj Chambers intercepted Will McIlvane’s pass.

Shelley engineered a quick 58-yard scoring drive, capped by his 10-yard TD pass to Hunter Wood just three ticks before halftime. 

Missouri State led 20-0 when Central Arkansas finally got on the scoreboard, early in the fourth quarter. It took just 14 seconds for the Bears to regain command, as Braswell returned the kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown.

Now the Bears come home, next Thursday night to face Tennessee Martin in front of what should be a large crowd under the prime-time lights. UT Martin is the same team that ended the Bears’ 2021 season, 32-31, in the FCS playoffs last November.

There is plenty of room for improvement against a team that will be much better than Central Arkansas. You get the idea that Petrino and his staff enjoy going back to the practice field and prepping for a big game, with corrections in mind.

“Mission accomplished,” Petrino said. “We got done what we needed to do — come down here and win the game. Now what we have to do is get better from it.”

Missouri State didn’t play its best and still won convincingly. What a different kind of journey we’re on.

Missouri State football home opener Thursday

Missouri State opens its home football season at Plaster Stadium on Thursday, Sept. 8, against Tennessee Martin. Kickoff is 7 p.m. UT Martin opened its season on Thursday night with a 42-25 home victory over Western Illinois.

For tickets to Missouri State’s home opener, visit the athletics ticket office in the Great Southern Bank Arena lobby or call (417) 836-7678

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