Cardiac Bears do it again: How Missouri State pulled off a thriller to all but secure playoff spot
Missouri State appeared to have its spot in the postseason secured, but Northern Iowa didn't go away. The Panthers were desperate while fighting for their own playoff lives.
The Bears' 14-point fourth-quarter lead quickly dwindled down to zero after UNI quarterback Theo Day completed an 18-yard touchdown pass with 2:14 left to tie the game.
On the Missouri State sideline, the Bears didn't flinch. Far too often this season, the Bears have been in the same situation.
Quarterback Jason Shelley didn't feel the pressure. Instead, it was a "here we go again" feeling when he was tasked with leading the Bears down the field to go get the go-ahead score.
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"It's just kind of like 'wow,'" Shelley said. "And then there's the confidence that is always with me and my guys when the game's on the line. So we went out there and I feel like we have one of the best two-minute offenses in the country."
With the game tied at 27 and 2:14 left in the game, Shelley lined up behind center. The first two plays weren't too promising as time ticked and the Bears only got four yards.
Facing a third-and-6, Shelley stepped up in the pocket and found Tyrone Scott on a hitch-route for a gain of 16 to move the ball to the Bears' 45. It was the Bears' final third-down conversion of the afternoon while the fifth-best third-down offense in the country picked up firsts on 6-of-13 third downs against the Panthers.
On the next play, Bears second-year head coach Bobby Petrino thought back to a play that he drew on the whiteboard during halftime. Although it was scripted, he didn't get to call it to start the third quarter because Ron Tiavaasue ran for 41 yards on a short pass that set up an MSU touchdown.
The play called for the running back to run near the boundary and for four verticals. It was a play the Bears worked on all week long and was written down for a two-minute situation. It was up to Shelley to read the movement of the safety and to throw the ball to a receiver dependent on where the defensive back moved.
Petrino remembered the call and sent it to his quarterback — who was as calm as could be.
Shelley dropped back to pass and got the perfect protection that was needed so the play could develop down the field. He recognized a Cover 3 look and knew he needed to attack the seam of the field after looking the safety off.
Shelley unloaded a pass to Naveon Mitchell down the middle of the field. It was caught for a big gain.
"Jason did a great job to read it and deliver a strike right on time," Petrino said.
Mitchell had a feeling the pass was coming before the play. He caught the ball at the Northern Iowa 33 in space. He made a cut to the right with two blockers to lead the way and four defenders to beat.
"I knew if I didn't go to the house, it was going to be close," Mitchell said.
Mitchell juked one defender inside and made him miss. Another defender tried to tackle him from behind and tried to strip the ball, but couldn't bring him down.
For the third time this season, the "Cardiac Bears" struck again. Mitchell took the pass 55 yards to the end zone to help secure Missouri State's 34-27 victory.
"It's just their mental toughness and belief," Petrino said. "They believe in each other and when you believe in your teammates and you believe in what you're doing, you keep fighting until the end. They've done a great job."
The win all but secures the Bears a position in the postseason. At 7-3 and a trip to winless Dixie State next week, Missouri State should be in the postseason for the second time in seven months.
Another win over a ranked opponent also boosts the Bears' resume when they're in a position to secure a home playoff game at Plaster Stadium. If more things go its way, Missouri State will be in the mix for a national seed — which would equate to a first-round bye and a home game in the second round.
The Bears are also alive in the race for the Missouri Valley Football Conference title. After South Dakota beat South Dakota State on a last-second Hail Mary, the Bears will need North Dakota State to lose to South Dakota next week to receive a share of the league title.
As historic as those achievements are, Shelley smiled and said the Bears will be focused on the next game. He also smiled when he said that the Bears have at least two more games to go.
"We feel like we're getting better each week," Shelley said. "There's always something we can work on and continue to get better at. But we've felt like we're getting better and I think we're hitting our stride right now."
Wyatt D. Wheeler is a reporter and columnist with the Springfield News-Leader. You can contact him at 417-371-6987, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter at @WyattWheeler_NL. He's also the co-host of Sports Talk on Jock Radio weekdays from 4-6 p.m.