Missouri State football made a statement to the Valley with second-half dominance vs. Redbirds
NORMAL, Ill. — When Missouri State defensive lineman Eric Johnson finally got his hands on the quarterback, there was no way he was going to let go.
Throughout the first half of the Bears' game Saturday afternoon against Illinois State, Johnson created interior pressure and the Redbirds' quarterback scrambled to throw the ball down the field for a big play.
"I felt for the longest time that he kept running away from me and I was trying to get them and chase it," Johnson said. "But when I finally got the opportunity and I finally got my hands on him, I was like 'aww, finally, success.'"
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Johnson's early third-quarter sack set the tone for how the rest of the game was going to go. After giving up multiple big plays in the first half and going into the break with a one-point lead, the Bears dominated en route to a 41-20 win over the Redbirds at Hancock Stadium in Normal, Illinois.
"The first half was really hard-fought," Bears head coach Bobby Petrino said. "We came out in the second half after the defense did a good job at halftime and we did a couple of different things."
For the second week in a row, Missouri State shut out its opponent in the second half. This week, it outscored the Redbirds 20-0 while allowing minimal yardage on the ground and coming away with an interception return for a touchdown.
Going into the game, the Bears knew they had to be ready for a heavy Redbird-rushing attack that has been a staple for the program for many years. Big offensive lines and talented tailbacks are things Illinois State always has under head coach Brock Spack.
But Illinois State came out looking for big plays. Behind a freshman quarterback, the Redbirds had chunk plays of 75, 59 and 30 through the air. It was a 21-20 Missouri State lead at the half.
"You've got to take your hat off to the quarterback and the receivers that made those plays," Bears head coach Bobby Petrino said. "They hit some big shots on us."
In the locker room, Petrino noticed what has become a theme of this Missouri State football team — a focus and a belief to get better. Adjustments were being made and the players were bought into what the coaches were saying.
And what they said worked.
"I'm just proud of them," Petrino said. "I'm just proud of the belief that they have now and how focused they are and how they communicate with each other talking amongst themselves to make the adjustments needed."
On Saturday, the Bears allowed six passes of 17 or more yards in the first half. In the second, the Bears only allowed one while continuing to shut down the run and coming up with a pair of interceptions — including one that was returned for a touchdown by standout cornerback Montrae Braswell.
Adjustments saw the Bears dial up creative blitzes from its corners and safeties to contain a scrambling quarterback and prevent him from looking down the field. After misplaying a deep ball in the first half, freshman corner Lemondre Joe won leverage on a fade route and came down with an interception in the endzone. At the same time, the Redbirds couldn't run the ball with only 20 second-half yards on the ground.
The three-touchdown win comes a week after the Bears rallied in the second half to top South Dakota for a 31-23 win. The Bears outscored the Coyotes 17-0 after halftime and shut down the run after allowing 92 rushing yards in the first half. In the second, the Bears only allowed 38 while creating a pair of interceptions.
"They believe in each other and that really helps," Petrino said. "Our offense and defensive staffs are doing a really nice job at halftime getting good information and from the press box. We're making adjustments and mixing things up and making corrections and players are listening and doing it. That's the best part of it. They're actually in the locker room, they can picture it in their mind and go out and do it."
It's an apparent sign of good coaching when you see the positive adjustments from one half to another. It's still taking some getting used to, but Petrino and staff have the Bears where they need to be at this point in the season.
After their three games to start the regular season ended in close and dramatic fashion, the Bears made a statement and proved they were the better team against a consistent playoff contender and one that has made the FCS National Championship in the last decade under its current coaching staff.
The growth of the Missouri State football program continues to show under Petrino. The Bears are now 2-0 in conference play with two very winnable games up next before the most difficult part of their schedule.
"These guys are putting in the work and they're getting better," Johnson said. "It makes me proud to see the effort we're showing on the practice field and how hard we're working is finally being seen by other people. It's good that we can put that on film for other people to see it. The fans back home, they get to finally enjoy what we can do for them."
Wyatt D. Wheeler is a reporter and columnist with the Springfield News-Leader. You can contact him at 417-371-6987, by email at email@example.com or Twitter at @WyattWheeler_NL. He's also the co-host of Sports Talk on Jock Radio weekdays from 4-6 p.m.