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Better late than never, Missouri State finally gets to play a home football game on Saturday. The Bears opened with road losses at Kansas and Tennessee-Martin before a bye week further threw cold water on any buzz first-year head coach Ryan Beard was hoping to create with the fan base.
That makes the home opener against Utah Tech all the more important. To his credit, Beard has attempted to market his program since he was promoted last December. A delayed home opener is not ideal, but that’s the way the schedule broke in 2023.
The Bears need to impress the home fans and do it in an entertaining way. As Captain Obvious once said, there’s only one chance to make a first impression, making the 2 p.m. kickoff at Plaster Stadium against an opponent few fans have heard of a must-win.
“It’s tremendously important,” Beard said earlier this week. “We have to show them we’re capable of putting a good, consistent product on the football field and that we’re an exciting brand of ball. There’s no better time than your home opener to do that.”
Home field hasn’t always been an advantage
Creating a genuine home-field advantage is a priority for a program that showed signs of doing so in Bobby Petrino’s three seasons as head coach. The Bears were 11-5 at Plaster Stadium under Petrino, including 5-0 in the 2021 regular season before a home playoff loss to UT-Martin.
Home-field success has otherwise been difficult to attain over the years, with only one winning home record from 2008-2020.
“Our fans can help us do that by being noisy, by being loud and coming out in full force to the stadium,” Beard said of how to create a home-field edge which is a norm at consistently top-level Missouri Valley Football Conference schools. “But for us, if you protect the house and you win every single game at home, you’ve got a chance to do some decent things in the conference.
“That challenge starts on Saturday. You have to make sure you have your sweat equity where home is. You have to protect the house.”
Plaster Stadium getting much-needed upgrades
That house has some new bells and whistles, most notably a new video board, scoreboard and sound system beyond the south end zone. The video board features a display 23 feet high and 42 wide with a 13HD pixel layout.
There have been concession upgrades, hopefully making for a more fan-friendly experience when shopping for food and drinks. Barbecue and cashew chicken are even available. Nightmares of long lines and water shortages of a year ago hopefully are forever eliminated.
While those things should make the fan experience much better, the ultimate tool to bring those fans back will be the on-field product. Quarterback Jacob Clark, set to make his first home start, said it’s important for the Bears to set the tone early.
“Start fast, come out with a lot of energy and put together four quarters of football,” Clark said. “We want to show our brand of football to everybody in Springfield and show everybody why they should come out and support us.”
Beard said Plaster Stadium is unique in that it’s the lone field the Bears practice on. There is no practice facility. The team does its offseason workouts there.
“This is where you practice, where you do running, where you do everything from January 1 to the next January 1. It’s on that field. If there’s somewhere that you desire to protect and play hard at, it absolutely should be that place you’ve sacrificed that much and put in so much time,
“It absolutely should mean something to you. And it means something to me.”
Playing for Connor Lair
If the Bears need more motivation, they need only think about teammate Connor Lair. A couple of days after the UT Martin game, it was announced that Lair had been diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma. He’s on leave from the team to focus on treatment.
“It sure as hell better galvanize us,” Beard said. “There’s no more of a challenge and trial than watching one of your brothers go through cancer treatment. I’ve said it numerous times, time is promised to no one. You take the attitude when you wake up, ‘Am I gonna make the most of the day or am I gonna let today beat me in some form?’
“There are people going through all sorts of things all across the country every day that no one knows about. It’s how you fight through it and how you persevere, and I think that’s resonated with our players in regards to, ‘Guys, this is college football. This is what you get to do. This is something that God has given you the ability to do. Pay it back, pay it forward.’
“You talk about our hometown fans, these people are gonna pay good money to come and watch you play. Give them your best performance, give them everything you’ve got. Sell out for the university and for the name on the back of your jersey.”
Clark said the Bears will have Lair in mind when they take the field on Saturday.
“What he is going through is obviously extremely hard,” Clark said of the sophomore running back from West Plains. “As a team, if we can just have a little bit of the heart and the fight that he is gonna have and he is gonna show, then we’re gonna be really good this year.”