SPRINGFIELD – In an NCAA Playoff game that featured eight lead changes, it seemed only fitting that the “Cardiac Bears” of Missouri State had the ball in game’s deciding moments, driving into UT Martin territory for the potential go-ahead score.
But with 1:03 to go, on the heels of 25- and 9-yard completions from Jason Shelley to Xavier Lane, a tipped pass was intercepted by UT Martin’s D’Carrious Stephens at his own 46, killing MSU’s drive and crushing its comeback hopes.
UT Martin (10-2) ran the clock out and escaped Robert W. Plaster Stadium with a 32-31 win over Missouri State, advancing to the second round of the NCAA FCS Playoffs and a date with No. 8 seeded Montana State next Saturday.
The Bears (8-4) turned the ball over six times on three interceptions, a fumble and two special teams mishaps that led directly to 23 Skyhawks points and ultimately proved to be the difference.
“We turned the ball over too many times offensively,” said Bears head coach Bobby Petrino. “We turned it over on special teams. We didn’t make enough plays to win the game. I felt right down to the end we would go down and score and get ourselves out of here with a win, but we didn’t make it happen.”
Shelley, who was named MVFC Offensive Player of the Year earlier this week, completed 22-of-42 passes for 3 touchdowns and 279 yards. He also rushed for a Bears playoff record 93 yards on 13 carries, including a career-long 54-yarder in the first quarter.
Lane caught 7 passes for 110 yards for Missouri State, also a Bears playoff record, while Tyrone Scott snagged 6 receptions for 71 yards, and broke the school record for catches in a season (66), surpassing Michael Sparks who caught 62 passes in 2005.
Shelley engineered two go-ahead scoring drives in the second half, including a 75-yard march with 5:48 left in the third quarter that was capped by a four-yard pass from Shelley to Kevon Latulas. The drive was highlighted by a 58-yard reception by Isaac Smith that set the Bears up first-and-goal at the UT Martin eight. Latulas’ touchdown three plays later gave Missouri State a 24-19 lead.
The Skyhawks bounced right back, going 88 yards on six plays to retake the lead late in the third when Zak Wallace scored from 14 yards out to make it 26-24.
Then, the wild exchange continued on the final drive of the third period with Shelley connecting on a 29-yard strike to Lane, his third catch on the seven-play, 67-yard march, to put the Bears back on top, 31-26, heading into the fourth.
The chess match for field position then took over on the first five possessions of the final stanza. UT Martin punted on its first three possessions of the quarter, and the Bears punted on their first two. But, facing a third-and-nine at its own 32, Missouri State coughed it up for the fifth time on the night.
An interception by John Ford at the MSU 37 set the Skyhawks up for what would be the game-winning score on the very next play. A 37-yard TD pass from Dresser Winn to Donnell Williams with 3:36 left in the game put UT Martin up 32-31 for the eighth and final lead change of the night.
With four fourth-quarter comebacks already under their belt this season, the narrow deficit was not unfamiliar territory for the home side. The Bears had two more opportunities down the stretch. The first saw MoState turn the ball over on downs at the UTM 49 on an incomplete pass with 2:17 remaining. However, the Bears’ defense held the visitors three-and-out and got the ball back 40 seconds later on a punt.
From their own 21, the Bears had 1:37 to pick up 48 yards and get into Jose Pizano field goal range. Petrino’s Bears chewed up 34 yards in a flash with two quick strikes to Lane. But Shelley’s third interception of the night sealed Missouri State’s fate.
The Bears outgained UT Martin by a 398-361 margin and held the visitors to just 4-of-17 on third down.
Tylar Wiltz paced Missouri State’s defense, racking up 14 stops, 2.0 tackles for loss, a sack, a forced fumble and an interception. In his final game, Eric Johnson added 11 total tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a blocked extra point.
The Skyhawks were led by Winn who finished 23-of-43 for 272 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His favorite target was Williams who caught 7 passes for 178 yards with Peyton Logan carried 12 times for 68 yards for the visitors.
UT Martin led 19-17 at the intermission, racking up 183 yards of total offense and capitalizing on four Bears mishaps in an opening half to gain the narrow advantage.
Shelley’s career-long 54-yard run from scrimmage on MSU’s third possession of the first quarter set up a four-yard touchdown pass to Ron Tiavaasue three plays later to give the Bears a 7-3 lead.
Late in the opening quarter, a Bears’ muffed punt set UTM up at the MSU 5. The Skyhawks punched it in three plays later on a pass to Zoe Roberts to retake the lead 9-7 after Johnson blocked the extra point.
Missouri State rallied to retake the lead midway through the second after a Tobias Little two-yard touchdown run capped a 10-play, 40 yard drive. A short Skyhawks’ punt gave the Bears a great field position and led to Missouri State retaking the lead, 14-9, with just over seven minutes left in the half.
However, the lead disintegrated with less than two minutes left in the second period when a Shelley fumble set the Skyhawks up at their own 39. A key third-down pass to Williams on third-and-nine went for 38 yards to the MSU 14 before Logan punched it in on the very next play and give UT Martin a 16-14 advantage.
The teams exchanged field goals down the stretch with a 26-yarder from Tyler Larco by the visitors at the 55-second mark, before Pizano’s 47-yard attempt split the uprights for the Bears as time expired, his 14th straight made field goal.
When the dust settled, this year’s MSU squad became just the third in program history to eclipse 400 points (411), averaging 34.3 points per game, while racking up 5,231 yards of total offense, also the third-best in program history.
The squad will also be remembered for making back-to-back NCAA playoff appearances for just the second time, joining the memorable 1989 and 1990 squads of coach Jesse Branch as the only Bears teams to do so.
After a calendar year that featured 19 football games, two playoff appearances, and a monumental shift in program stature and national prominence, Petrino and the Bears will look anxiously to next year and what lies ahead in 2022.
“We came in expecting to win, and our players gave everything they had,” said Petrino. “The next step for us is to get in (to the playoffs) and win.”