It was nearly nine months in the making but #5 Missouri State finally got their revenge on #14 UT Martin for last year’s opening round loss in the FCS playoffs. Jason Shelley, who was picked off three times in that contest, had to go blow for blow with Dresser Winn and the Skyhawks once again but this time out, he was able to ultimately lead his team to a well-earned five-point victory on Thursday evening.
It was the UT Martin defense that got off to a fast start. On the second play of the game Daylan Dotson sacked Shelley and helped force a quick three-and-out. From there the Skyhawks offense wasted no time. Winn and company used a no-huddle attack to march 73 yards in eight plays. Receiver Colton Dowell was targeted three times on the opening series and hauled in the 24-yard touchdown to cap it.
Trailing 7-0 early, the Bears got some much needed help when a pass interference penalty gave them a first down on a third and long. One play later Shelley hit Celdon Manning who took it 64 yards to the house. In a blink the game was knotted back up.
It was clear early on that Winn wanted to target Dowell often. The two connected for a big 25-yard gain on third down to keep the chains moving on the ensuing series. The drive, however, eventually sputtered and UTM’s Tyler Larco flexed his muscles with a 55-yard punt that was downed inside the MSU 5-yard line.
The poor field position made no difference to Shelley and his offense. The Bears orchestrated a lengthy drive that chewed up over five minutes. Running back Jacardia Wright broke through the Skyhawks defensive line and scampered down the sideline for a big 47-yard run. After bringing Wright down inside the 5-yard line, though, the UT Martin defense held strong on the goal line and forced a fourth and goal.
Head coach Bobby Petrino rolled the dice and went for it. Wright got the call again but was hit hard at the line where he coughed up the ball. At first it appeared as though he fell on his own fumble for a touchdown but upon review, it was ruled that the ball was recovered outside of the end zone thus giving the ball back to the Skyhawks.
Following the tremendous defensive stand, UT Martin again began moving the ball effectively, getting down to midfield before ultimately petering out yet again. Winn executed a pooch punt that yet again gave Missouri State poor field position.
On the first play of the following series, Shelley was sacked just outside of the goal line. From the shadow of his end zone, though, he found wideout Jahod Booker for a big 21-yard completion to move the chains. The duo repeated that dance a few plays later. Another Shelley sack set the offense behind schedule again but again Booker came down with a big catch, this one good for 27 yards. Not long after that, Shelley hit Tyrone Scott for the go-ahead score.
For all MSU was doing well at this point, they couldn’t stay out of trouble with the officials. On the touchdown play, the Bears were flagged for an unsportsmanlike foul. It was the second such penalty on the team with still six minutes to go in the second quarter. In total they were penalized eight times for 100 yards.
The shortened field gave the Skyhawks a good opportunity to tie the game and they did just that. Running back Zak Wallace got his 22nd career touchdown with a nice 15-yard scoring run with 3:45 until halftime. UT Martin, despite being 14-point underdogs, was not going away quietly.
Missouri State’s 6-ft, 298-lbs defensive lineman Siale Suliafu got the home fans amped up with a rumbling 34-yard kick return. It was the fourth time in Suliafu’s career he’s been in on a kick return after having three last year.
The big runback helped set MSU for their third touchdown of the night. With just 35 seconds to play until the break, Shelley hit Wright on a quick pass that he took 19 yards for a score. At halftime the Bears led 21-14 and Shelley had already thrown for 229 yards and three touchdowns.
Winn continued finding Dowell as the third quarter got started. On the opening drive of the half, the duo hooked up three more times and led the Skyhawks down to the red zone. Tight end DJ Nelson got his first touchdown of the season when Winn hit him from five yards out to tie things at 21.
Penalty issues persisted for MSU. On their first possession of the half, a big personal foul set things back. This time the Bears were unable to overcome it and had to punt away. Then later in the quarter, a roughing the kicker flag bailed UT Martin out on a long fourth down. Larco hit a 23-yard field goal on that series to make it 24-21.
Early in the fourth quarter, Shelley regained the lead for MSU when he completed a seven-yard touchdown pass to Scott on fourth down. Then, after making a stop on defense, Missouri State scored one more time. Scott hauled in another TD, this time from 22 yards away. The play put MSU on top by 11, their largest lead of the evening.
Still, the Skyhawks would not break. Winn led a quick drive to pull within a score again with 2:43 to play. He connected with receiver Elijah Smoot for a 14-yard touchdown but the two-point conversion failed ensuring the score would still remain a five-point difference. UT Martin, despite their efforts, could not field the onside kick and with no timeouts left, it spelled doom.
Missouri State bled the clock out and came out on top 35-30.
Shelley was again fantastic, completing 19 passes for 297 yards and five touchdowns. Scott put up a career night receiving with eight catches, 96 yards and three scores. On the ground Wright finished with 120 yards on 23 touches.
The Skyhawks defense despite giving up 436 yards had several bright spots. They sacked Shelley five times, not an easy thing to do to the guy that could be this year’s Walter Payton Award winner.
Winn finished the game completing 29 of his 41 throws for 344 yards and three touchdowns. Dowell had a monster night, hauling in 10 passes for 159 yards and a score.
Missouri State will head to Arkansas next weekend for a date with the Razorbacks. The Skyhawks, too, have a big game in front of them as they head to Boise State next Saturday.