Springfield, Mo. -- Zach Adkins connected with freshman Shakeir Ryan on the go-ahead 51-yard touchdown pass to propel Northwestern State to a 23-17 season-opening victory over Missouri State Thursday evening at Plaster Field. The Demons (1-0), who outscored the Bears 13-0 over the final 24 minutes of the contest, were sparked by a defense that came up with a key turnover to initiate their second-half rally and limited the Bears to 312 yards of total offense for the night.
The back-and-forth contest featured a pair of ties and four lead changes, but it would be the play of Demon’s freshman safety Adam Jones that turned the tide for good midway through the third period with MSU leading 17-10 and operating with the ball deep in its own territory following a goal-line stand by its defense. Jones jarred the ball free on a Kierra Harris-to-Julian Burton completion and fell on a crucial fumble recovery at the Bears’ 13 yard line to set up a four-yard run by Adkins that knotted the score.
The NSU defense held its ground on the ensuing MSU drive, before Adkins found a wide-open Ryan streaking down the sideline for what would prove to be the game-winning score with 14:36 left in the game.
Missouri State generated a pair of scoring chances late in the game, but Austin Witmer was wide left with a 44-yard field goal try, and the Demons stopped the Bears on a fourth-and-10 at the NSU 20 with just under four minutes to play to seal the outcome.
The Demons’ late surge followed a momentum-swinging sequence early in the second half from the Bears that saw them rebound from a tough start to grab a 17-10 lead. After struggling to move the ball consistently in the first half, the Bears’ offense scored the first 10 points of the second stanza to turn a 10-7 deficit into a seven-point advantage. On MSU’s opening drive of the half, Harris connected with junior receiver Burton on a 53 yard completion to the Demons’ seven-yard line, then carried it into the end zone from the one for the go-ahead touchdown after an NSU personal four penalty kept the drive alive.
The Bears expanded their cushion on a 42-yard Witmer field goal with 8:57 left in the period, then came up with a goal line stand on a fourth-and-one to preserve the 17-10 lead on the Demons’ next drive, but that would prove to be MSU’s last hurrah.
Adkins finished the game 24-of-37 for 233 yards, and Ryan led all receivers with six catches for 73 yards.
Harris paced the Bears’ offense with 51 yards rushing on seven carries, while completing 17-of-33 passes for 189 yards. Dorian Buford hauled in five receptions for 70 yards, while Burton grabbed five passes for 67 yards.
Northwestern State limited the MSU offense to four first downs and 89 yards of total offense to take a three-point cushion lead into the halftime locker room. NSU’s Daniel Taylor rushed six times for 54 yards – including 30 on a second-quarter touchdown run – to help the Demons control the clock for nearly 19 of the first 30 minutes of the contest.
Both defenses enjoyed strong starts to the season, with the two teams combining for just 113 yards of total offense in the first quarter. Northwestern State held the Bears without a first down until early in the second period, while the MSU defense came up with a key turnover to thwart an early scoring chance for the Demons. After Adkins began the evening with seven-straight completions and moved his team to the Bears’ 17-yard line, MSU junior linebacker Andrew Beisel stepped in front of a third-down pass attempt for the first interception of his career.
But the Demon defense held again, and the NSU offense needed just five plays to drive 58 yards for the first score of the night, punctuated by a Taylor 30-yard touchdown scamper. The drive capped a dominant early stretch that saw the Demons reel off 25 first-quarter plays to the Bears nine, while controlling the clock for over 11 minutes in the opening period.
Senior running back Mikael Cooper-Falls sparked the Bears’ offense on the ensuing possession, carrying the ball six times for 25 yards to set up MSU’s first scoring drive of the year. Harris hooked up with senior receiver Dorian Buford for a key 25-yard completion to the Demons’ 30, then scored on a one-yard run with 9:17 to play in the half to help the Bears even up the score at 7-7.
The Demons closed out the half with a seven-play drive over the final 2:39 of the period to take a three-point lead into intermission after Chris Moore booted a 44-yard field goal as time expired.
In addition to his interception, Beisel added a game-high 10 tackles, while junior cornerback Sybhrian Berry logged nine stops (six unassisted) and broke up a pair of passes for the Bears.
Up next, the Bears (0-1) embark on their first road trip of the new season next weekend with an 11 a.m. game against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.
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