Missouri State football vs. Arkansas takeaways: Bears announce they're for real in FCS title race

Wyatt D. Wheeler
Springfield News-Leader

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Missouri State had Arkansas fans holding their collective breath throughout Bobby Petrino's return to Fayetteville on Saturday night.

The FBS No. 10 Razorbacks rallied by outscoring the FCS No. 5 Bears 21-3 in the fourth quarter to come away with a 38-27 win over the Bears at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

Only one FCS team in college football history has beaten a top-10 FBS program (Appalachian State over Michigan in 2007) and Missouri State looked like it was going to be the second through three quarters. The Razorbacks proved to be too overwhelming in the final minutes and escaped with the win.

Despite the loss, Missouri State fans have plenty to be proud about with the way their team performed. It was tough, gutsy, well-coached and it showed that it's going to be a team to be reckoned with for the remainder of the season.

The Bears went toe-to-toe with a top-10 team in the highest subdivision of college football and they were the better team for the first three quarters.

Here were our takeaways from Missouri State's first loss of the season:

Finally, the Bears looked like what they were meant to be

Missouri State Bears quarterback Jason Shelley (3) carries the ball as the Bears took on the Arkansas Razorback at Arkansas on Saturday, September 17, 2022.

Through the first two weeks of the season, there were some concerns that popped up about the Bears while they swept through their non-conference schedule with wins against Central Arkansas and UT Martin.

There was undisciplined play, concerning play among some position groups and moments throughout that made you question whether they were going to be a legitimate challenger in the FCS — which they're considered by most covering the subdivision to be.

A lot of those concerns were put to rest as the Bears played their best game of the season — on the biggest stage, against the best team they'll see and with a major spotlight put on it with Petrino making his return to the Arkansas campus.

It's hard to imagine a better quarterback at the FCS level than the one lining up in the Bears' backfield. The offensive line is starting to come together and there are fixable spots to work defensively with after Arkansas' better athletes made big plays late in the game. 

The speed that they played combined with the positions the coaching staff put it in gave it a chance to pull off the greatest win in the school's history.

It feels like it's only up from here for Missouri State.

Bobby Petrino saved his best for his former school

Missouri State Bears Head Coach Bobby Petrino lead the Bears as they took on the Arkansas Razorback at Arkansas on Saturday, September 17, 2022.

No one could blame if Petrino had spent extra hours at the coaching offices this week or saved some of his best plays for his former program. All eyes were on him before the game and his performance should have people talking about him after the game.

Petrino was phenomenal throughout the night with his offensive play-calling. Even outside of the fourth-and-1 play that turned into a 47-yard touchdown completion from Jason Shelley to Tyrone Scott, Petrino had the Arkansas defense off-balance throughout the night.

Throwbacks to tight end Lance Mason came at opportune times. He often got his slot receiver in one-on-one situations in space with Kevon Latulas, Jahod Booker and Naveon Mitchell each having big nights. The three combined for 13 receptions for 194 yards and an average of 14.9 yards per catch.

Petrino knew the holes in the defense and planned out his calls perfectly. Shelley mentioned after the game that the Beras focused much of the week knowing that Arkansas was banged up in its secondary and there would be a chance to take advantage. 

Arkansas' pressure turned out to be too much for the Bears in their final drives of the game and we didn't get a chance to see those plays develop. Nonetheless, Petrino left the night with a very impressive showing while reminding the Arkansas faithful of what they once had.

Missouri State did everything it needed to put itself in a position to win, but couldn't pull it off

The Missouri State Bears took on the Arkansas Razorback at Arkansas on Saturday, September 17, 2022.

When hoping to come away with one of the biggest wins in school history, against a team the caliber of Arkansas, a few breaks have to go your way and you need to have your A-game. The Bears had that for three quarters on Saturday and put themselves in a position to have a chance.

The Bears put a lot of focus on trying to create turnovers throughout the week — something Arkansas is one of the best in the nation at not doing. On Saturday, the Razorbacks turned the ball over three times while the Bears took care of the ball.

One Arkansas fumble turned into Missouri State's first touchdown of the game before the Hogs fumbled at the MSU 1 on their next drive. The Bears responded with a field goal drive and ultimately scored 10 points off of turnovers throughout the night.

The Missouri State Bears took on the Arkansas Razorback at Arkansas on Saturday, September 17, 2022.

Missouri State also did a solid job at containing the Razorbacks' defensive line until late in the game when they were starting to send the house. Arkansas finished the game with eight total sacks with two coming in each quarter. Petrino did a good job at moving Shelley and creating quick enough passes that took the pressure off the line when going up against one of the better defensive lines in the SEC.

The offensive line was good enough although it didn't give the Bears too much of a chance when trying to drive the ball late when Arkansas came back and took the lead. The play from the line was encouraging enough to feel comfortable with its performance heading into a difficult stretch of Valley opponents.

The final stats don't show it but the Bears did a decent job against the best rushing offense they will see all year. The Bears allowed 212 yards on the ground with 126 of the yards coming on rushes of 10 yards or more.

Appreciate Jason Shelley while you have him. He looked like a high-level FBS quarterback

Missouri State Bears quarterback Jason Shelley (3) celebrates after scoring a touchdown on the Arkansas Razorback at Arkansas on Saturday, September 17, 2022.

There will be an argument by the end of Shelley's Missouri State career that he is the best player to ever put on a Bears uniform. He continues to amaze while creating plays for his offense and he is going to be in the running for the Walter Payton Award for the best offensive player in the FCS at the end of the year.

Shelley was incredibly poised in one of the more hostile environments he will ever play in. He was in total control reading defenses throughout the night while running around to his offensive line and checking into better protection when the Razorback crowd was at its loudest.

He silenced the "Calling of the Hogs" on multiple occasions while an extremely loud stadium screamed as he'd convert on a third-and-long with a perfect pass to the outside.

He finished the night 24-of-43 for 357 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for 110 yards and a score when you take out the yardage lost on sacks.

This is the final year of Shelley in a Bears uniform and it's going to be a sad thing for all when he's gone. There's no one more fun to watch as he's made a legitimate claim for Missouri State football's G.O.A.T. title alongside the great DeAndre Smith.

A challenging South Dakota State is on deck

The Missouri State Bears took on the Arkansas Razorback at Arkansas on Saturday, September 17, 2022.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire goes Missouri State as it hosts FCS No. 2 South Dakota State on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Plaster Stadium.

South Dakota State is 2-1 this season and was close to having an FBS win over Iowa to open the season. Its 7-3 loss was highly-publicized after the game didn't feature a single touchdown.

SDSU has won two straight which included a 24-22 win over UC Davis and a 45-17 win on Saturday at home against non-scholarship FCS Butler. 

The Jackrabbits feature one of the more experienced rosters in the FCS but the biggest question has been how it would play at quarterback behind Mark Gronowski who was the MVFC's Offensive Player of the Year during the spring 2021 season before injuring himself during a national championship loss and missing the entirety of the fall season.

Gronowski, so far this season, is 40-of-72 for 476 yards and two touchdowns. He's run the ball 25 times for a gain of 85 yards with three touchdowns.

Missouri State Bears quarterback Jason Shelley (3) celebrates after scoring a touchdown on the Arkansas Razorback at Arkansas on Saturday, September 17, 2022.

Isaiah Davis, a Joplin grad, is the one to watch for the Jackrabbits at running back as he has 236 rushing yards and no touchdowns so far this season. He's considered one of the top backs in the FCS and has been largely contained to start the year. The previous regime at Missouri State did not offer him.

The Jackrabbits are allowing 15.3 points per game so far this year and are averaging just over 250 yards per game against them on the ground.

A big storyline to watch with SDSU this week is the availability of tight end Tucker Kraft who injured his right ankle in the season-opener. He's missed the last two games but initial reports said the injury wasn't considered to be too long-term. He's considered by some to be the best NFL prospect in the FCS. Matt Zimmer of the Argus Leader in South Dakota tweeted on Sept. 10 that it doesn't appear Kraft will be back any time soon.

Petrino has never coached against South Dakota State. 

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.