Missouri State football: 6 takeaways from Bears' impressive win over Illinois State

Wyatt D. Wheeler
Springfield News-Leader

NORMAL, Ill. — A dominating performance in the second half of Saturday afternoon's football game has Missouri State 2-0 to begin Missouri Valley Football Conference play.

The Bears (3-1, 2-0) outscored Illinois State (2-3, 0-2) 20-0 in the final 30 minutes en route to a 41-20 blowout win at Hancock Stadium in Normal, Illinois.

Missouri State had its best offensive performance of the season while continuing to shut teams down defensively to come away with a win it needed. The Bears are now 4-0 on the road in conference play under head coach Bobby Petrino with a trip to Youngstown State coming up next week.

Here are six takeaways following the Bears' win:

More:Missouri State football pulls away to blow out Illinois State for third-straight win

1. Defense continues second-half dominance

Missouri State running back Kevon Latulas carries the ball in a college football game at Illinois State on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, in Normal, Illinois.

In the last two weeks, Missouri State has outscored its opponents 37-0 in the final 30 minutes of the games — leading to the Bears pulling away for their wins.

On Saturday, it started with defensive lineman Eric Johnson finally getting a hand on Illinois State quarterback Jackson Waring and putting him on the turf for a 12-yard loss. After that, the Bears picked off Waring twice — including a Montrae Braswell pick-six

In the second half, Illinois State finished with only 100 total yards and averaged 1.1 yards per rushing attempt. The Redbirds only punted once in the first half before kicking it away on five of their seven possessions — with the other two being the interceptions.

What changed this week?

"We mixed it up a little bit on the front movement and brought a couple of different pressures," Petrino said. "We wanted the quarterback to adjust and have to see it with his eyes down a little bit. I thought our defense did a good job timing it up."

Often throughout the second half, the Bears brought different blitzes with corners coming in and safeties running in at the last second. Notably, in the second half, safety Kyriq McDonald perfectly timed a blitz, shot the hole and batted a third-down pass into the air and nearly came up with a spectacular interception.

That, and the leverage the cornerbacks fought for on the outside kept Illinois State from completing any passes down the field or into the endzone. The most notable play came when Illinois State attempted a fade to the endzone and freshman Lemondre Joe came down with the pick.

2. Jason Shelley has best passing game of career

Missouri State quarterback Jason Shelley throws in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Oklahoma State, Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Stillwater, Okla. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Dating back to his days at Utah and Utah State, Bears starting quarterback Jason Shelley hasn't had a passing performance better than the one he had on Saturday afternoon.

Shelley was 19-of-27 for 319 yards and two touchdowns. His lone interception should have been caught by his receiver and it was tipped and fell into an Illinois State defender's arms. 

"Jason did a really nice job distributing the ball and making decisions," Petrino said. "He did some different things that came up in his decision-making than normal and he hit our tight ends over the middle a couple of times. It's nice to see him understand the progression and take what the defense gives him."

Shelley was efficient and kept the chains moving on third downs. He was still dangerous with his legs while extending plays and also rushing for 41 yards.

He spread the ball out more than he had in previous weeks. Eight different receivers caught a pass with Jordan Murray catching five passes for 85 yards and a touchdown and Tyrone Scott catching four passes for 79 yards.

Shelley's performance topped his career-high 302-yard game in the 2018 Holiday Bowl when he was at Utah playing against Northwestern.

3. Bobby Petrino calls his best offensive game

Missouri State Football head coach Bobby Petrino walks the sideline during the Bears game against the University of Central Arkansas at Plaster Stadium on Saturday, Sep. 11, 2021.

Seemingly every play call Petrino decided to make on Saturday worked. Only four of the Bears' 65 plays went for a loss. 

When the Bears got the ball, there was a belief they were going to be able to score. Five of their 12 drives ended in touchdowns as two finished with missed field goals. 

The running game worked with eight of the Bears' 38 rushing attempts going for 10 yards or more accounting for 115 of MSU's 194 rushing yards.

Shelley, as noted, had the best passing game of his career. Receivers were often found wide-open at different parts of the field. Most notably, Petrino called the Kevon Latulas' wheel route on a play that turned into a 69-yard touchdown out of a timeout.

"The players made it easy for us," Petrino said. "We controlled the line of scrimmage, we were able to run the ball, run with power and break tackles."

4. Offensive line continues to take steps

Scenes from a college football game between Missouri State and Illinois State in Normal, Illinois, on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021.

The offensive line was one of the biggest questions heading into the season. Through four games, the Bears have answered and have emerged as a group that can be relied on to win games.

Missouri State's offensive line had its best performance to date when it allowed no sacks and got the push for 194 rushing yards. 

"They're really starting to gel and come together," Petrino said. "They work hard, they like each other and the communication they had today was key. It was huge because that's a tough defense and it knows what it's doing. They do a lot of different things, they bring a lot of guys and you have to communicate and understand it and do your responsibility. I felt like our o-line did a great job."

5. Illinois State gave up in a way

Missouri State receiver Tyrone Scott carries the ball in a college football game at Illinois State on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, in Normal, Illinois.

Missouri State fans will joke that the Redbirds quit for the second time this year — the first coming when they backed out of the spring season mid-way through and the second coming Saturday afternoon.

For some reason, down 14, on fourth-and-12 from the Missouri State 32 with 8 minutes, 16 seconds to go, Illinois State head coach Brock Spack opted to punt the ball instead of going for it.

At that point in the game, he was betting on his defense to get stops and score after a pair of three-and-outs and Lemondre Joe's interception in the endzone.

Missouri State got the ball and started to milk the clock. The Bears had a third-and-5 with just over five minutes to go when Petrino dialed up a wheel route that found Latulas wide-open. He broke away for a 69-yard touchdown to take a 21-point lead. 

Illinois State's odds at winning the game and even picking up the fourth-and-long seemed like a long shot. But those odds went from a small chance to no chance when Missouri State took a three-touchdown lead.

6. No drama to fuel rivalry, but players had their jokes after the game

Scenes from a college football game between Missouri State and Illinois State in Normal, Illinois, on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021.

No, there wasn't any drama during the Valley's traditional pregame handshake. No, there wasn't any drama after the game. 

The Petrino vs. Spack feud appears to be no more.

But the players still had their fun after the game — poking at Illinois State's decision to back out of the spring.

"It shoulda snowed again," linebacker Tylar Wiltz tweeted — referring to how MSU had to postpone the initial game due to icy conditions, initially irking Spack.

"Anybody. Anywhere. Anytime," star defensive end Kevin Ellis also tweeted — referring to what the Redbirds said after the postponement of the first game, before the Redbirds backed out of the season.

Wyatt D. Wheeler is a reporter and columnist with the Springfield News-Leader. You can contact him at 417-371-6987, by email at wwheeler@news-leader.com or Twitter at @WyattWheeler_NL. He's also the co-host of Sports Talk on Jock Radio weekdays from 4-6 p.m.