How Missouri State football can shock the world and upset Arkansas in Bobby Petrino's return

Wyatt D. Wheeler
Springfield News-Leader

Missouri State almost pulled off the shocker of the 2021 season when it started the fall at Oklahoma State in Stillwater.

With under a minute-and-a-half remaining, the Bears received a punt from the Cowboys and moved the ball into Cowboys territory after a 23-yard completion from Jason Shelley, making his first MSU start, to Tyrone Scott. The Bears were down by seven against the then No. 22-Oklahoma State Cowboys.

After the incompletion, the Bears went backward with Shelley throwing an incompletion followed by a pair of sacks. Petrino said the Bears would have gone for two to try and win if they scored, but they didn't get the chance.

Oklahoma State ended up being one of the best teams in the country and was a half-yard away from reaching the College Football Playoff but they came up just short in the Big 12 Championship game. 

Heading into a matchup with FBS No. 10 Arkansas, the Bears think last year's experience will help them know what to expect.

More:How time has healed wounds left by Missouri State head coach Bobby Petrino at Arkansas

The Missouri State Bears took on the UT Martin Skyhawks at Plaster Stadium on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022.

"I think it gives us a great bit of confidence," Shelley said. "I think that game gave us a lot of confidence heading into the rest of the season. I think a lot of the guys this year are going to look at that game and see that we can play with anybody and that we just got to do our jobs and make sure we're 100% on assignments and let the chips fall where they may."

Missouri State heads into Arkansas for a 6 p.m. Saturday matchup that has already drawn plenty of attention due to it being head coach Bobby Petrino's return to where he coached for four years before being fired.

But the team can turn it around and make themselves the story by pulling off one of the bigger upsets of the year. After multiple Sun Belt schools knocked off Power 5 opponents last week, the Bears want to be the FCS school to knock off what appears to be a team building into an SEC power.

The Bears are heavy underdogs with some sportsbooks listing the Bears as a 23-point underdog and others going as many as four touchdowns. A lot will need to go the Bears' way but it's not impossible for them to pull it off.

Here's how it can happen:

More:What Missouri State coach Bobby Petrino said on Monday about his return to Arkansas

Slowing down Arkansas' defensive line

The Missouri State Bears took on the UT Martin Skyhawks at Plaster Stadium on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022.

Missouri State's offensive line did a much better job against UT Martin than it did to open the season at Central Arkansas. The Razorbacks' defensive line, however, is a different animal.

Run lanes are going to be tough to come by with the Hogs' defense ranking 19th in the country in rush defense at 76.5 yards allowed per game. The Razorbacks are also third in the FBS in sacks with nine through two games.

Reigning national defensive player of the week Drew Sanders has three sacks so far this season including two last week against South Carolina. Redshirt senior defensive lineman Jordan Domineck also has a sack in each game this season after transferring from Georgia Tech.

More:Arkansas football vs. Missouri State: How to watch, stream, listen to Bobby Petrino's return

Arkansas' depth chart is substantially bigger, stronger and more athletic than anything the Bears have seen so far this year. Every defensive tackle is over 300 pounds with defensive ends being as tall as 6-foot-7 and being 250 pounds or more.

Don't look for Missouri State to attack the Razorbacks' defensive line straight-on all that often. Petrino will look to slow down the defensive line and get Shelley on the move. Quick passes can serve as an extension of the run game in addition to screens throughout the afternoon.

Make KJ Jefferson beat you with his arm

Sep 10, 2022; Fayetteville, Arkansas, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks quarterback KJ Jefferson (1) looks to pass in the first quarter against the South Carolina Gamecocks at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Arkansas has one of the best ground attacks in the country, ranked No. 8 in the FBS at 259.5 yards per game, and the Bears are going to have to slow that down. Tailback Raheim "Rocket" Sanders has 273 rushing yards through two games and ranks atop the SEC.

Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson is also a capable rusher as a bigger-bodied signal caller with 129 rushing yards so far this season. 

If Arkansas' ground game has a day, the Bears probably won't stand a chance. Their best bet is to make Jefferson beat them with his arm. He’s also a capable passer but not near the level the team's overall ground game is at.

Sep 10, 2022; Fayetteville, Arkansas, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks running back Raheim Sanders (5) rushes for a touchdown in the second quarter as South Carolina Gamecocks linebacker Debo Williams (0) defends at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Jefferson, in his second year as the Hogs' full-time quarterback, is a 6-foot-3, 242-pounder who is completing 76.6% of his passes. He has 385 passing yards so far with four touchdowns and no interceptions.

In 2021, Jefferson was a 67.3% passer and threw for 2,676 yards, 21 touchdowns and four interceptions. Two of his interceptions came in the first two weeks of last season and one came in the final week. He's excellent at taking care of the ball.

Turning Jefferson into a full-time passer doesn't guarantee a victory but it could get the Bears closer to one. The strength of the Bears' defense is the secondary and it will have to lock down a very talented group of big receivers led by 6-foot-5 Toledo transfer Matt Landers and 6-foot-3 Oklahoma transfer Jadon Haselwood.

A passing attack isn't what Arkansas wants to do under a tough Sam Pittman-coached team that would rather run the ball down your throat. If the Razorbacks are having to throw to have success, then the Bears are doing something right.

More:How the Jason Shelley, Ty Scott connection helped Missouri State football get its revenge

Take advantage of Arkansas' banged-up secondary

The Missouri State Bears took on the UT Martin Skyhawks at Plaster Stadium on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022.

The Razorbacks have had some injuries for the first two weeks of the season — most coming in the secondary. South Carolina was able to move the ball via passes down the middle of the field and it's going to need to be something the Bears take advantage of.

Junior safety Myles Slusher missed last week's game with an undisclosed injury but Pittman has teased he'll be back for this week's game. The Razorbacks will be without cornerback LaDarrius Bishop who was injured against South Carolina.

The Bears will need to take advantage. Arkansas' second-stringers will be better than most first-teamers they'll play throughout the FCS schedule but an Arkansas team not at 100% gives the Bears a better chance than one that's heathy.

Petrino will know how to take advantage of some weak spots. Attacking some inexperience and players coming off injuries can help.

More:Missouri State vs. Central Arkansas football: Five takeaways from Bears' Week 1 win

Bears can't make any mistakes while needing Arkansas to make some of its own

The Missouri State Bears took on the UT Martin Skyhawks at Plaster Stadium on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022.

We've written about it a few times now — the Bears need to cut out most of their penalties, especially the 15-yarders. Last week, the Bears didn't turn the ball over vs. UT Martin but there were a few penalties that led to Skyhawk points. The Bears can't give the Razorbacks free points.

One thing Arkansas does better than most teams in the country is that it doesn't hurt itself. The Razorbacks are currently eighth in the country in turnover margin while only turning the ball over once through two games. They've taken away the ball five times already.

The Bears' playmakers are going to have to make plays — whether it's forcing key fumbles or intercepting the ball. It's something the Razorbacks don't do but the Bears are going to have to make it happen in order to come away with the major upset.

More:Missouri State football is starting to hold itself to a higher standard, as a top 5 team should

If all else fails, at least come out of the game healthy

The Missouri State Bears took on the UT Martin Skyhawks at Plaster Stadium on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022.

In reality, Saturday's game doesn't matter in the grand scheme of the Bears' pursuit of a national championship this season. A loss wouldn't hurt the Bears' chances at making the playoffs when it appears they are on their way to making the postseason for the third year in a row. 

Any injuries sustained during the game could have a major impact on the Bears' championship hopes.

When you look at the schedule after Arkansas, the Bears have four critical games starting with Sept. 24's home matchup with South Dakota State. That might be the most important game of the year when also trying to chase a Missouri Valley Football Conference title.

The Bears are still going to come out and give it their best shot. Petrino echoed Herm Edwards saying "you play to win the game."

Coming out of the game healthy is the most important thing on Saturday. A win would be one of the greatest team sporting achievements in the school's history.

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