In a relatively short time period that Bobby Petrino has been the head coach, the measuring stick for Missouri State’s football success or failure has changed dramatically.
We’re a couple of months shy of three years since Petrino was hired to take on what many believed was an impossible job of turning around Bears’ football. What happened has been downright amazing.
Missouri State made the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs in Petrino’s first two seasons. This included a short amount of time to recruit (Petrino’s hire was on top of national signing day) and the onset of COVID-19.
Despite the obstacles, Missouri State made it to the playoffs for the first time in three decades. As the late, great sports announcer Jack Buck once said, “I can’t believe what I just saw!”
That instant success raised expectations to an unmatched level in 2022. The Bears were a top-five team in some preseason polls and those within the program weren’t afraid to mention the words “national championship” entering the fall.
It was fun to believe championship hype
We all bought into the hype and, in retrospect, should have been a bit more cautious — though it was fun to believe it possible. It’s just not that simple in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, where North Dakota State and South Dakota State not only ruled the roost again this year but have achieved years and years of consistent excellence on a national level.
Those schools also have a bunch of big, strong and mostly home-grown offensive linemen who physically dominate the most-important position on the field.
While it’s oversimplifying Missouri State’s 5-6 season to lay all the blame at the offensive line position, that certainly was the most-glaring weakness. It proved that no matter how good your quarterback is — and Jason Shelley was as good as any in the FCS — you’re only as good as your body guards. We saw that a couple of years ago in the Super Bowl when Patrick Mahomes ran about nine miles trying to escape Tampa Bay defenders.
Shelley was sacked 45 times in 2022 and hit many more. Conversely, Missouri State defenders only collected 18 sacks of opposing quarterbacks. The Bears were unable to sustain drives against the best opponents, running an average of 63 plays a game as opposed to 70 a game in the 2021 fall season, basically one fewer drive per game.
Offensive line inconsistent — and small
Petrino, in a news conference prior to the season finale against Indiana State, spoke about the offensive line shortcomings.
“The issue has been consistency,” Petrino said. “Some games we came out and did a really nice job and some games we haven’t. We are a little bit inexperienced.
“We have some work to do. We have to get bigger. We have to recruit bigger and get bigger,” he added. “When you look at the teams we go against, their O lines and the size of those are a little bit bigger than we are.”
They also were more experienced. The Bears had one senior on the 10 players listed on the offensive line two-deep for the final game of the season. North Dakota State has three senior starters on the offensive line and South Dakota State has two. Those two schools also average 6-foot-5 and 6-4½ for the starters with Missouri State standing at 6-3. The average listed weights aren’t much different.
Petrino said the Bears are looking to grow a base of offensive linemen through high school recruiting and already had some promising youngsters who spent this season as redshirts. It’s long been thought at the FCS level that linemen — offense or defense — are the toughest to find via the transfer route.
“We feel like we have a good freshman crew sitting there practicing, working with the size,” Petrino said. “We are trying to build and develop the young players. That is a position you can’t come in and just play right away. You have to learn a lot of technique and fundamentals and confidence in using your technique. Developing them and growing them is definitely the way to go.
“I would like it to be that way. I’d like to have guys here 4-5 years and grow and develop, then supplement from the transfer portal and junior colleges. That’s what our goal is.”
How much progress is made in the offseason, on both the offensive and defensive line, is going to be huge for what happens on the field next fall. It was good to see the program get some positive vibes heading into the offseason by winning three of its final four games.
Community buzz will need rebuilding
But the 5-6 record definitely was a burst bubble after back-to-back playoff appearances. The program is clearly in a better place than it was when Petrino arrived, following a 1-10 Missouri State season. That said, a losing record means rebuilding the interest in the community.
“It puts it right back in our lap. We have to go out and play well,” Petrino said of regaining the community buzz that was soaring just a few months ago.
“I think we have some good momentum in recruiting. We’ve got to turn that into production on the field. It’s our job to put fans in the stands.”
Like a house with a strong foundation, winning football is built with those big men in the trenches doing the heavy lifting. The better they perform, the more there will be to cheer about in 2023.