Missouri State won the coin toss before Thursday night’s home opener against Tennessee-Martin and elected to receive. The Bears were ready to mash the gas and go.
Instead, Missouri State went three-and-out and soon found itself looking up at a seven-point deficit.
Such is football. Sometimes, the best laid plans go awry.
No fear. The new breed of Missouri State football quickly rebooted — a job made easier when Jason Shelley is your quarterback. The Bears’ offense cranked it up, beating the Skyhawks 35-30 in front of 9,872 fans at Plaster Stadium.
Shelley sharp in make-or-break fourth quarter
Shelley, a preseason Walton Payton Award candidate for best player in the Football Championship Subdivision, looked every bit the part. He threw for five touchdowns, completing 19 of 24 passes for 297 yards.
Three of the TDs went to Ty Scott, including two in a make-or-break fourth quarter which began with the Bears trailing 24-21.
The victory gave the No. 5-ranked Bears a 2-0 start to the season and served, at least a bit, as a measure of revenge from last November’s 33-32 Football Championship Subdivision loss to UT Martin on the same Plaster turf.
Revenge was on the Bears’ minds
How much had Shelley thought about the rematch, over the last 251 days?
“Probably for 246,” Shelley said with a smile. “I gave UCA their week. But for sure, as soon as that was over, I went right to UT Martin.”
Shelley felt responsible for the 2021 playoff loss to the Skyhawks, throwing three interceptions and losing a fumble as Missouri State turned the ball over six times in the defeat. He and other team veterans had openly talked during the preseason about avenging the outcome.
Coach Bobby Petrino knew it, but had tried to downplay the revenge angle and keep his team focused on its business. Taking care of the football was one of those elements and the Bears did their job, playing turnover-free.
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Photojournalist Bruce Stidham captures the buzz on Missouri State University’s campus ahead of the Bears first home game Sept. 8.
“Four turnovers, that’s not something I like to hold my hat on,” Shelley said. “I came back and just had to be better. A lot of the mistakes we made last year when we played them were on me. I wanted to turn around and be a better player.”
When you have as many touchdown passes as incomplete passes, that’s quite the turnaround.
“He’s just a great competitor,” Petrino said of Shelley. “You could see Jason was very focused all week long in practice. He did a great job of getting everybody else ready, and leading, then went out and performed on his own.”
Bears were their own worst enemy early
Missouri State’s offense rolled up 301 first-half yards, riding the right arm of Shelley who completed 13 of 17 passes for 229 yards and three touchdowns.
But even as the Bears treated the UT Martin defense like a sharp-clawed cat toying with a woozy mouse, Missouri State only took a 21-14 lead to intermission.
The Bears could have been on the verge of making the game a runaway, but were their own worst enemy. They squandered points late in the first quarter, unable to score on four running plays from the UT Martin 3-yard line.
On their next possession, the Bears went in front 14-7 with a sharp, 94-yard drive. Shelley overcame two sacks to make six pinpoint throws on the drive, including three hookups with Jahod Booker for 60 yards.
Ty Scott caught a 10-yard fastball from Shelley to cap the drive. But in his excitement, the All-American receiver was flagged for excessive celebration when, he said, he was simply giving thumbs-up to fans in the student section. While that didn’t affect the touchdown, or ensuing extra point, Missouri State lost 15 yards on the kickoff.
That third of three lack-of-discipline penalties committed by the Bears in the first half forced them to kick off from the 20, giving the Skyhawks good field position on their own 39. UT Martin took advantage, going 61 yards in seven plays to tie it up.
Suliafu’s kick return gives MSU a boost
Missouri State then got a lift from 298-pound defensive tackle Siale Suliafu. As UT Martin smartly kicked away from return man-extraordinaire Montrae Braswell, Suliafu caught a short kickoff and rumbled 34 yards, dragging Skyhawks along for the ride.
“It was that play that … is legendary,” Scott said, noting the mental lift it gave the Bears.
Starting from the UT Martin 41 was easy pickings for Shelley, even after a sack to start the drive. He connected with Booker on 4th-and-3 from the 34 to keep it going, then on the next play found Jacardia Wright for a 19-yard touchdown.
Bears survive ugly third quarter
The third quarter was not pretty. UT Martin immediately drove 71 yards to tie the game, then held the Missouri State offense to three-and-out. The major-penalty bug bit the Bears again when they roughed the Skyhawks’ punter on 4th-and-25 from midfield. That meant 15 yards and a first down.
It led to Tyler Larco’s 22-yard field goal, putting UT Martin in front 24-21 with 1:18 left in the third quarter.
Shelley, Scott connect to put Bears back on top
Missouri State responded, of course behind the guidance of Shelley, with a 61-yard drive. Shelley and Scott made the play of the game, on 4th-and-1 from the UT Martin 7, hooking up for a 7-yard fade pass to put the Bears back on top.
Petrino said he had called a sprint out to the right, but Shelley used his option with a hand signal when he saw Scott in rare one-on-one coverage on the left side.
“I just trusted my guy. He was getting double-teamed all game,” Shelley said of Scott. “He finally got an opportunity to be one-on-one and I let him have it.”
Scott said he told Shelley before the game “‘if you need me, I got you.’ He took a shot. I had to come down with it.”
Defense comes up big
The defense then came up with a big stop, holding the Skyhawks on 4th-and-9 from the Missouri State 37 with 7:26 to play.
It didn’t take the Bears long to put it away, needing just six plays for the knock-out touchdown. Shelley’s fifth TD pass of the night was a zinger over the middle to Scott, for 22 yards.
That was the clincher, with a UT Martin late scoring drive making for the final margin. The Bears used their running game, absent in week one against Central Arkansas, to put it away with Wright finishing with 120 yards.
Win soothes pain of playoff loss
While the playoff loss memory will never completely go away, this one sure helps soothe the pain. Especially for their quarterback and offensive leader.
“I just remembered exactly what we felt after that game (last year) was over,” Scott said. “For me, I knew it was going to come full circle around. As soon as the schedule dropped, I was like ‘oh man, week two?’
“I was waiting on this day. Every time I got a chance to ask (Shelley) what he wanted me to run, I was gonna do it.”
Shelley was quick to praise his teammates, including an offensive line that played much better than in week one. But clearly, this one was personal.
“I had guys make plays,” Shelley said. “I got those first-game jitters out of the way. I feel pretty good right now.”
Next for the Bears
- Missouri State plays at Arkansas at 6 p.m. Sept. 17.
- The Bears’ next home game is 2 p.m. on Sept. 24, the Missouri Valley Football Conference opener against South Dakota State.