A football coach watches his team play
Former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino wants his Missouri State team to enjoy the big-time experience of playing at Razorback Stadium on Saturday night. (Photo: Missouri State Athletics)

OPINION |

Few Missouri State football games over the years can match the intrigue presented by Saturday night’s trip to Fayetteville to take on the No. 10-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks.

There’s the obvious storyline of Bears coach Bobby Petrino returning to where he once coached. Petrino led the Razorbacks to the highest levels of major-college football before a well-publicized off-the-field scandal led to his firing in April 2012.

It will be fascinating to watch the fan reaction when Petrino leads the Bears onto the field. Time heals wounds and the Arkansas program is finally in a good place again, led by Sam Pittman. I would predict more cheers than jeers for Petrino.

But once the pre-kickoff hoopla passes, things will get down to blocking and tackling. It’ll be all about football and this Missouri State team seems better-suited to compete with a blueblood program than ever before.

Bears have struggled against FBS competition

Not to suggest that Missouri State is going to go into Reynolds-Razorback Stadium and win the game. There is a huge difference in depth in matchups between Football Bowl Subdivision teams and Football Championship Subdivision teams like the Bears — particularly in line play. 

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Missouri State is 1-38 all-time against FBS opponents, with the lone victory coming in 1990 at UNLV. The Bears are 0-7 all-time against the Razorbacks and have been outscored 345-40 in those games, including a 48-10 loss to Arkansas in 2009 with Petrino coaching the Razorbacks.

Bears aiming to be competitive

But this year it would be surprising if the Bears weren’t at least competitive for two reasons: the Petrino factor (the guy can flat-out coach) and Missouri State won’t be bothered by the environment. The Bears have 26 players who have transferred from FBS schools. 

“This will be one of the toughest teams I’ve played against so far,” said Bears running back Jacardia Wright, a transfer from Kansas State. Wright talked about anticipating a rowdy atmosphere in Fayetteville, but he and other teammates have seen a few of those before.

“The Big 12 was good to play in. It was a great atmosphere,  almost every game,” Wright said. “Going to Arkansas, an SEC school, should be a great experience for all of us.”

Just a year ago, Missouri State went to Oklahoma State — a team that nearly made the four-team College Football Playoffs — in the season opener and lost 23-16. The Bears had the ball in the red zone late in the game, throwing a mighty scare into the heavily favored Cowboys.

“I think it gives us a great bit of confidence,” quarterback Jason Shelley said of how that experience can aid the Bears on Saturday. “Last year that game gave us a lot of confidence heading into the rest of the season.”

Petrino tries to keep the focus on the field

Petrino has attempted to keep the focus on the game rather than himself this week. He wants his players to enjoy the experience and focus on enjoying the atmosphere while playing aggressive and fast.

“I think in the way we prepare, we really focused last year on getting ready to play mentally and physically by just being fast and just playing with great effort,” Petrino said of the Oklahoma State game. 

“Our players will enjoy it,” he said of Razorback Stadium. “It’ll be a great atmosphere with a big, huge stadium that’s nice and loud. I think we’ve gotta go enjoy the experience and play as hard as we possibly can and just see what happens.”

A football player celebrates a win
Jason Shelley said Missouri State’s competitive loss at Oklahoma State a year ago gave the Bears confidence the rest of the season. (Photo: Missouri State Athletics)

A no-lose situation for MSU

While most games of this sort produce big, necessary paydays for the underdog (Missouri State will collect $450,000 for the game) they rarely produce upset victories. The biggest goals are to enjoy the experience, improve from facing good competition and avoid significant injuries.

But the competitive side Petrino has brought to Missouri State has the Bears dreaming big. During his news conference earlier this week, Petrino referenced former NFL head coach Herm Edwards’ famous post-game rant from a generation ago.

“You play to win the game, baby,” Petrino said with a smile.

This really is a no-lose proposition for the Bears. In the big picture, it’s sort of like eating dessert before the main course.

Bigger game ahead for the Bears

A bigger match awaits just a week from now when the Bears play host to South Dakota State in the Missouri Valley Football Conference opener. That match of top-five schools in the FCS will be Missouri State’s biggest home game in three decades and have direct implications on their goals of winning the Valley and earning an unprecedented third straight FCS playoff berth.

So enjoy the game in Fayetteville, win or lose, and what is happening for a Bears’ program that’s making football interesting in Springfield.

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