By Eric Doennig
MURRAY, Ky. – Despite its best offensive showing in nearly three years, Missouri State dropped a 41-38 thriller to Murray State Saturday evening at Roy Stewart Stadium. Murray’s Walter Powell hauled in his fourth touchdown reception of the game with 24 seconds left in regulation to cap a wild second half that featured seven lead changes.
After Missouri State rallied to take the lead twice in the fourth quarter, the Racers delivered the deciding blow with a 12-play, 75-yard drive to send the Bears to their third-straight 0-3 start to a season. On fourth-and-10 from the Missouri State 15, Powell caught quarterback Maikhail Miller’s fifth touchdown pass of the contest, out-leaping a Bears’ defender in the corner of the end zone to put the Racers on top for good.
The Bears’ last-ditch effort to pull out their first victory came up empty, as Kierra Harris’s first pass attempt on MSU’s ensuing drive was picked off by John Therrell at the Murray 44, effectively sealing the win for the home team.
Despite the setback, Missouri State piled up 578 yards of total offense, representing its biggest output since its last trip to Murray on Oct. 9, 2010, when it combined with the Racers’ on a then-FCS record 1,423 total yards. Senior running back Vernon Scott racked up a career-best 189 rushing yards on 25 carries this time around, marking the best rushing day for a Bear since Chris Douglas totaled 191 yards three years ago against the Racers. Additionally, MSU’s 34 first downs equaled the fourth-best single-game total in school history.
Harris also came up big for MSU, rushing for three touchdowns and 62 yards, both totals marking new career highs for the junior, who also completed 20-of-31 passes for 212 yards to top the 200-yard passing mark for the third time in 14 career games as a Bear. His two favorite targets on the night — Julian Burton and Eric Christophel — each posted career-best nights for catches and receiving yardage with seven receptions apiece for 73 and 69 yards, respectively.
But it was the duo of Powell and Miller that won the night for the Racers, who improved to 2-1 with the victory. Powell finished the night with 11 receptions for 155 yards, while Miller completed 24-of-33 attempts for 272 yards through the air – including four second-half touchdowns – to lead the Racers’ rebound from an inconsistent first half that saw Murray total just 109 yards of offense.
Powell got things started as soon as the teams broke from the locker room, bringing the second-half kickoff back 98 yards for a touchdown that initiated a 13-point scoring spurt for Murray over the first four-and-a-half minutes of the half. Miller found Janawski Davis for a 52-yard scoring strike on the Racers’ next possession to put the home team in front for the first time.
Missouri State responded to the Racers’ outburst with its longest scoring drive of the season, marching 77 yards to reclaim the upper hand on Harris’ second short touchdown run of the night with 6:21 left in the period.
Next, it would be the Racers’ turn to take the lead, as Miller once again hit Powell, who outraced a pair of MSU defenders to the end zone for a 66-yard touchdown and a 26-21 Murray advantage.
The Bears fought back, getting a 35-yard field goal from Austin Witmer to slice the deficit to 26-24, then leapfrogging the Racers once again on Scott’s second scoring run of the game early in the final period for a 31-26 lead.
The two clubs traded blows over the next nine minutes, with Murray converting the first of two fourth-and-goal tries at the 5:38 mark on Miller’s toss to Powell on a reverse pass from the MSU four-yard line. Not to be outdone, Harris and the Bears came up with a 67-yard scoring drive of their own, as Harris rushed four times for 26 yards and connected with Burton on a 12-yard gain to set up a nine-yard touchdown run by the Missouri State quarterback with just under three minutes to play.
Murray State’s hopes for a comeback appeared to be waning when Mike Crutcher picked off a Miller pass and returned the ball to the Murray State 25 on the ensuing drive. But a personal foul on the Bears kept the drive alive, and the Racers went to work on the ground to move into scoring position for the final time. Held to just 55 rushing yards to that point, Murray State accounted for 38 of its 75 yards on the ground, moving the ball to the MSU 15 before three straight incompletions set up Miller’s game-clinching strike to Powell.
Missouri State took a 14-6 lead into intermission after rolling up 332 yards of total offense in the opening half. The Bears kicked their offense into high gear on their first possession of the night, marching 60 yards to the Murray State 10, before a pair of penalties and a stout Racer pass rush disrupted the drive. Harris completed his first four pass attempts to lead the drive, highlighted by 23-yard connection to Burton. But the Racers pressured Harris on a first-and-goal from the 20, resulting in a Darian Yahyavi interception in the end zone.
The Bears defense kept the Racers in check, forcing three-and-outs on Murray’s first two possessions to give the MSU offense time to mount another scoring threat. Missouri State would rack up 145 yards of offense and nine first downs before the Racers registered their initial first down of the evening with just over two minutes left in opening period.
Missouri State, which rushed for a total of 193 yards in its first two contests of the season, finished the half with 203 ground yards, while the Bears’ defense limited the Racers to just 17 rushing yards. Vernon Scott led the Bears’ charge with a career-high 110 rushing yards on 16 first-half carries, including a 25-yard jaunt to the end zone with 6:21 left in the first quarter to cap a 68-yard drive and stake MSU to an early 7-0 lead.
Murray State responded late in the first quarter, as Miller sparked the Racers offense by completing 4-of-4 passes for 76 yards on a six-play, 87-yard drive that ended with a 37-yard touchdown strike to Powell.
Miller would lead the Racers offense in the opening half by connecting on 10-of-12 pass attempts for 92 yards and a touchdown.
A pair of special teams miscues kept the Bears in front, however. First, Jordan Benton’s extra-point attempt following the Racers’ lone touchdown of the half sailed wide of the uprights to keep it a 7-6 game. Then, following a stop by the Murray State defense deep in MSU territory, a muffed punt return by the Racers positioned the Bears near midfield for another scoring drive.
Harris and the Bears would cash in, moving the ball 45 yards to pay dirt and a 14-6 advantage. Harris finished off the drive with a one-yard plunge with 4:05 to play in the half.
The Racers defense helped turn the momentum in the closing moments of the half, coming up with a stop on the Murray State two-yard line as time expired after the Bears elected to try for six after Harris completed a 20-yard pass to Christophel with just two seconds left on the clock.
The Bears conclude their non-conference slate next Saturday (Sept. 21) when they host nationally-ranked UCA at Plaster Field. Missouri State’s “Salute to America” game kicks off at 6 p.m. and will include a reunion of the Bears’ 1963 MIAA championship team. Tickets to the game are available through MissouriStateTix.com, by calling (417) 836-7678 or stopping by the Chevy Pickup Window at JQH Arena during regular box office hours.
(Eric Doennig is assistant director of athletics communications, Missouri State University)