Coach Bobby Petrino accepts congratulations from Jesse Branch, the last coach to lead Missouri State into the FCS playoffs, following a home victory last season. (Photo: Missouri State Athletics)

OPINION |

When Bobby Petrino accepted the charge of turning around Missouri State’s long-suffering football program 30 months ago, the hashtag #WakeTheBears became a rallying cry on the school’s football Twitter.

What seemed like the ultimate football fixer-upper has been nothing short of a Lazurus-like U-turn. Two playoff appearances in two seasons — through the weird and trying times of COVID no less — and the Bears football program is now wide awake and wired for the next step.

Great expectations this fall

Missouri State is bathing in expectations of which we have not seen since Jesse Branch coached the team to league titles and back-to-back Football Championship Subdivision playoff appearances in 1989 and 1990.

Best of all, Petrino is not shying away from big hopes and dreams that not long ago were mere fantasies in Bear Nation.

“It’s really nice to have high expectations,” Petrino said during a recent appearance on The Sports Reporters, with myself and Ned Reynolds on Jock 96.9 and 99.9 FM. “Our players have high expectations and our coaches do.”

The Bears opened practice this week for perhaps the most-anticipated season in program history. They have playmakers on both sides of the ball, including the most-necessary piece of all to win — a star quarterback.

Shelley entrenched at starting QB

Jason Shelley is one of 35 players on the preseason Walter Payton Award Watch List, which will honor the best player in FCS football at season’s end. Shelley was the 2021 Missouri Valley Football Conference offensive player of the year after passing for a school-record 3,347 yards and recording a school-record 3,789 yards of total offense.

It’s hard to believe, but Petrino said Shelley will be better this season after having a full offseason in the program. Last year, he arrived on campus during the summer as a transfer and quickly left no doubts that he was “the man.”

“He got here at probably the start of June. Probably by the middle of June, everybody knew he was gonna be our starting QB,” Petrino said. “When I say everyone, I mean all the players. That’s what I believe, that you come in and show the players who the starters are and Jason showed that right away.”

Difference-making quarterbacks elevate teams through more than on-field performance. Petrino said Shelley is “a tremendous leader and competitor.”

“When he first got here and he did so well, I think we assumed that he knew more than he did,” Petrino said. “Going through spring ball, he’s improved tremendously.”

Quarterback Jason Shelley gives Missouri State’s football team a difference-making dimension it’s rarely had over the years. (Photo: Missouri State Athletics)

For all his accolades last season, Shelley’s last game was a clunker. He threw three interceptions and the Bears turned it over six times in a 32-31 loss to Tennessee-Martin. It spoiled Missouri State’s first home playoff game in 31 years.

“That’s the hardest thing to take about that last game against Tennessee-Martin, I felt that we beat ourselves,” Petrino said. “We’re gonna get back to where we don’t make mistakes and don’t beat ourselves. Then you have a better chance to beat your opponents.”

Early-season success is key

UT-Martin returns to Plaster Stadium for a regular-season game on Sept. 8 in what should be a festive night for the home opener. That game is part of a banging first month that will set the tone for the season.

After opening Sept. 1 at Central Arkansas and playing host to UT-Martin, the Bears go to Arkansas on Sept. 17. That will be a much-hyped game as Petrino returns to Fayetteville, where he was head coach from 2008-11.

Then it’s the conference opener on Sept. 24 against South Dakota State, which is picked second in the league but ranked No. 2 in the FCS behind North Dakota State. Since Missouri State does not play North Dakota State this season, the early showdown with SDSU will give the winner an inside track toward a Valley title.

There’s no downplaying how big the opening weeks will be. September will lay the groundwork for the Bears’ success. What will it take to make the next leap? 

“The key is to get there again,” Petrino said of the playoffs “As you look at our schedule, it’s tough. We have two really good games coming up that we must win, Central Arkansas and UT-Martin. Then we go to Arkansas, and then come back and open the conference against South Dakota State. 

“So when you look at that, we need to have a great camp and learn a lot about ourselves. We have to be sharp and be ready to play right away. That’s a great challenge.”

While simply reaching the playoffs was cause for celebration the last two seasons, that now is expected. It ought to be fun to watch.

“We spent two seasons with a chip on our shoulder just trying to earn some respect,” Petrino said. “Now we have to make sure we know how to handle higher expectations. The only way I know how is to work harder and do things better.”

In other words, the Bears are awake and now must avoid taking any unwanted naps this fall.

Missouri State Football schedule

Sept. 1 – at Central Arkansas, 7 p.m.

Sept. 8 – Tennessee-Martin, 7 p.m.

Sept. 17 – at Arkansas, 6 p.m.

Sept. 24 – South Dakota State, 2 p.m.

Oct. 1 – at North Dakota, noon

Oct. 8 – Southern Illinois, 2 p.m.

Oct. 22 – at Northern Iowa, 4 p.m.

Oct. 29 – Western Illinois, 2 p.m.

Nov. 5 – at South Dakota, 1 p.m.

Nov. 12 – Youngstown State, 2 p.m.

Nov. 19 – at Indiana State, noon 

Ticket info: Missouri State football season tickets are available by calling 417-836-8899; single-game tickets go on sale Monday, Aug. 8, at MissouriStateBears.com or by calling 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