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Missouri State finished its fall football schedule Saturday in a 33-24 loss to Central Arkansas to fall to 0-3 on the 2020-21 season. 

Under new head coach Bobby Petrino, the Bears have already shown a considerable amount of growth on the defensive side of the ball but offensive problems still need to be fixed. There should be hope around the Missouri State football program and the direction it’s going. With a few fixes, the Bears should be competitive when they take the field again on Feb. 20. 

MISSOURI STATE FOOTBALL COVERAGE

Here are 10 thoughts going into the unusual midseason offseason: 

1. Does Missouri State have a quarterback problem?

The biggest question for Missouri State after three games in the fall is what it has at quarterback. 

The assumption going into the season was that Jaden Johnson would be the starter after Petrino brought him in from Southern Miss. The head coach recruited Johnson to play at Louisville before he was fired as the Cardinals’ coach. 

But Johnson’s play, even as a redshirt-freshman, created doubts because of his recklessness with the ball. 

Johnson finished the fall 39-of-79 through the air for 383 yards, zero touchdowns and four interceptions. He also lost three fumbles in the last two games in critical situations in two games the Bears could have won. 

His recklessness turned into him getting benched for redshirt freshman Jake Van Dyne in the second quarter during the final game of the fall. 

Van Dyne stepped in and completed 7-of-13 passes for 92 yards while also throwing two interceptions. He showed good arm strength while completing some difficult passes as he led the Bears to two scoring drives when he entered the game. More of the offense appeared to open up. 

But after halftime when Central Arkansas had time to adjust to a new quarterback, it brought more pressure and made Van Dyne look a little more uncomfortable. He forced a pair of interceptions before getting knocked out of the game with an injury. 

Neither quarterback looked comfortable in the Bears’ three games and they will both compete for the starting job come late February. 

When the Bears play their eight games in the spring with whoever behind center, they both will be under the microscope. The play at the position was the difference between MSU being 2-1 and 0-3. 

Johnson likely holds the upper hand due to being Petrino’s hand-picked player. He has a higher ceiling because of his athleticism and he has just as strong of an arm as Van Dyne. Johnson can do more. 

But if the recklessness continues while the defense continues to put MSU in a position to win games, Van Dyne will get another opportunity. Petrino showed he is not afraid of making that tough decision. 

If Van Dyne doesn’t work out, the Bears could give Ty Baker another look. He’s a good athlete and would have been the likely starter if MSU was still coached by Dave Steckel.

MSU going with three different quarterbacks in an eight-game span feels unlikely but it might be what Petrino has to do to figure out if he has his guy.

If no one works out, that’s when it will get tricky. Although the quarterbacks are young, Petrino could be put in a spot where he has to look elsewhere if the group is still losing MSU games it probably should have won.

Petrino showed with his decision to sit Johnson this past week that he might not be afraid to admit someone isn’t the guy and look elsewhere.

There are a lot of hypotheticals here. There’s a chance with more practice and time together going into a season that Johnson, Van Dyne or whoever can turn into a consistent, good starter. 

But with the inconsistency at the position and Petrino’s choice to bench Johnson, these questions are warranted and will be watched closely throughout this midseason offseason and the eight-game conference season.

2. Offense was the difference between 2-1 and 0-3

Missouri State should have won its two games against Central Arkansas, but it couldn’t get out of its own way. 

That’s only speaking of the offense. The defense continued to do its part and was put in difficult situations because of turnovers and bad situations the offense put it in. 

None of Central Arkansas’ six touchdowns in two games came from lengthy drives. Only a pair of UCA’s four field goals came on drives of more than five plays. The only scoring blunder for the defense came on a 42-yard touchdown pass when UCA started its drive at the MSU 43. 

Here are all of UCA’s scores in the two games:

@ Central Arkansas

  • Four-yard touchdown after a fumble
  • Touchdown pass on three-play, 34-yard drive
  • Fumble return for a touchdown
  • 57-yard punt return

Central Arkansas

  • 47-yard field goal after an interception
  • Interception return for a touchdown
  • 26-yard touchdown drive after a fumble
  • 46-yard field goal on eight-play, 32-yard drive
  • 43-yard field goal on 10-play, 28-yard drive
  • 23-yard field goal after interception
  • 42-yard touchdown pass

Out of Central Arkansas’ 60 points scored in two games, 40 were scored off a turnover. The other 20 came on two field goals, a 42-yard touchdown pass when UCA started with the ball at the MSU 43 and a 10-yard touchdown pass when UCA started with the ball at the MSU 34.

3. Jeremiah Wilson is capable of winning MSU games in the spring

The most encouraging thing going for the Bears’ offense is the return of Jeremiah Wilson. 

Although he was limited to just 13 carries overall and three in the second half, Wilson became the first Bear since 2018 to rush for 100 yards in a game. He also ran in a nine-yard touchdown. 

Wilson, who returned from his second season-ending ACL tear, is a player who is capable of winning the Bears’ games in the spring — as long as he’s able to stay on the field. 

Even with a shaky offensive line, Wilson can sneak through little creases and break some tackles. He has breakaway speed and is a big-play threat every time he touches the ball. 

With struggling quarterbacks, Wilson should be the centerpiece for the offense. He’s talented enough and it can help give the Bears better ball control to rest their defense and put them in better positions.

Wilson will now go into an offseason healthy for the first time in a few seasons. The redshirt-sophomore should be the featured back when the Bears return to the field. 

This is a very talented player to watch and he’s going to be a reason why Missouri State wins games in the future.

4. The offense has taken a step back so far

Through three games, Missouri State has taken a few steps back from an offense that ranked near the bottom of the FCS a year ago. 

The numbers show a small uptick in rushing yards — which should be expected with the return of Wilson and the play of Kevon Latulas thus far. Passing yards are down and the Bears are turning the ball over at an alarming rate. Peyton Huslig threw 10 interceptions a year ago while MSU’s quarterbacks have already combined to throw six. 

Although it might be a little unfair to look at it through three games, here’s a look at some of the averages so far:

Total Offense:

Passing yards: 

Rushing yards: 

Turnovers per game:

Yards per play:

Third-down percentage

5. MSU proved it will have a good defense

After three games, it is safe to say Missouri State has a good defense and it will continue to have one. 

The turnaround is remarkable and you almost wait for it to implode because of MSU’s recent history, but it continues to be assignment sound, fast and physical. It’s fun to watch and it will give the Bears a chance to be successful. 

Missouri State’s defense has deserved two-straight wins over a team coming off a playoff appearance. Central Arkansas has good receivers, a dynamic quarterback and experience. The Bears have shut it down for four-straight quarters. 

It’s unfortunate the scores have been high and the 36 points allowed per game will be misleading. Even in a 48-0 loss to Oklahoma, the Bears showed potential in the second half. 

With creative blitzes, a pass rush, a shutdown corner and physical safeties, the Bears are in a good position going forward. Big plays have been limited when they were a problem under the previous regime. 

If there’s anything that should make fans excited for the future, it’s that the Bears already have a defense that can dominate. It also has room to improve with more recruiting and more time playing together. 

6. The pass rush is the biggest difference

In 11 games last season, MSU recorded nine sacks. Through three games this season, MSU already has 11 sacks. 

Only four different defenders recorded half a sack for MSU in 2019. Through three games, 11 defenders already have recorded half a sack. 

That’s quite the difference. 

Isaiah Sayles leads Missouri State with 2.5 sacks in 2020-21 while Kevin Ellis also contributed with 1.5. Tylar Wiltz, Ferrin Manuleleua, Mikey Miles, Zack Sanders and Charles Johnson each had one while Anthony Payne, I.K. Ahumibe, Eric Johnson and Michael Pope each had a half. 

Those are rotational linemen pieces and a few linebackers and members of the secondary creating pressure with the different creative blitzes the Bears have used so far. 

The pass rush was non-existent a year ago. A new coaching staff, a new scheme and a few new players later, it’s already a threat on every snap.

7. Jeremy Webb is the best player on the team

The potential in Jeremy Webb was obvious when the Bears landed his commitment before the season. He was supposed to start at a proud secondary factory in Virginia Tech until a pair of Achilles tears put his career in jeopardy. 

Now he’s at Missouri State. He’s healthy. And he’s really good.

Webb has consistently stood out in the Bears’ secondary while being nearly impossible to throw against. He held a potential All-American receiver without a catch in both games — although the receiver was ejected early on Saturday. 

The corner finished the fall with two interceptions, four pass breakups and six pass deflections. 

The combination of a pass rush and Webb taking away teams’ best receivers is a good recipe for success. The ceiling is high for a long 6-foot-4 corner like Webb and he should only improve after seeing limited action in recent years.

8. Here is the improvement between this year and last

When you compare what Missouri State has done in recent seasons to what it is doing now defensively, it is a hard to believe the defense was being coached by a former Broyles Award nominee as a defensive coordinator for the previous five seasons.

Numbers don’t do the 2020 defense justice considering the number of points surrendered because of the offense and the bad field position the defense is put in. We’re including the Oklahoma game in the averages because the Tulane loss is averaged into 2019. 

Here are the comparisons between 2019 and now:

2019 average

  • Points allowed per game — 36.1
  • First Downs allowed — 18.9
  • Rushing yards allowed — 225.1
  • Passing yards allowed — 217.3
  • Average per run — 5.4
  • Average yards allowed per game — 442.4
  • Sacks per game — 0.8
  • Third-down defense — 51-of-141 (36.1%)

2020 average 

  • Points allowed per game — 36
  • First Downs allowed — 17.7
  • Rushing yards allowed — 105
  • Passing yards allowed — 246
  • Average per run — 2.9
  • Average yards allowed per game — 351
  • Sacks per game — 3.7
  • Third-down defense — 13-of-45 (29%) 

9. MSU will be better because it played three games in the fall

Missouri State safely got through three football games during the COVID-19 pandemic and the team will be better because of it. 

Yes, the Bears will be 0-3 when the season resumes in February — that doesn’t go away. But they are aware of their problems offensively now instead of just discovering them when the conference season begins. 

Petrino, an offensive-minded head coach, will now have more time to prepare with a team that came out of the three games healthy. He’ll have a player like Wilson maybe at 100 percent and can build the offense around his talent while attempting to groom a young quarterback. 

The defense will be tasked with maintaining its excellence, as it has over the final 10 quarters of the fall season. 

There should be a newly-found sense of hope around this program. It has proved that it has potential. Consistency on offense and continued dominance on defense will be key to winning a few games in the spring. 

10. What the spring season looks like

This spring won’t be very easy, but it never will be as long as the Bears are in the conference they play in. 

Here’s MSU’s schedule:

  • Feb. 20 – @ North Dakota
  • Feb. 27 – Illinois State
  • March 6 – @ Northern Iowa
  • March 14 – Southern Illinois
  • March 27 – North Dakota State
  • April 3 – @ South Dakota
  • April 10 – @ Indiana State
  • April 17 – Youngstown State

Missouri State is taking a required two-week break and the Bears will have workouts throughout the rest of the winter. Practices could start as early as January for the 2021 spring season. 

The Bears aren’t expected to lose any high-profile players for the spring season while others in the league have already felt that impact. 

North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance will enter the NFL Draft and is considered a first-round pick. Northern Iowa had a few defensive standouts from one of the better defenses in the country announce they were transferring. 

Teams around the league will be weaker while Missouri State’s played more games than them and showed improvement. It won’t likely turn into MSU being a contender, but a few wins for the Bears should be expected.

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. You can subscribe to his free “Bears Beat” newsletter on News-Leader.com. He’s also the co-host of Sports Talk on Jock Radio weekdays from 4-6 p.m.