After six weeks of the college football season, Missouri State is 1-4.
This time last year, the Bears were 4-2.
For starters, a few key playmakers graduated. Running back Jason Randall had 296 rushing yards and five touchdowns at this point last season. Safety Jared Beshore recorded 34 total stops at this point in 2018, 22 of which were solo tackles.
Missouri State lost four of its five starting offensive linemen to graduation as well. Their spots were filled by freshmen and sophomores, leaving junior center Casey O’Brien as the only returning starter on the line.
What’s weird, though, is this change hasn’t affected Peyton Huslig in the slightest. In fact, he’s improved.
This time last season, Huslig had thrown four touchdowns for 761 yards and six interceptions. This season, he is second in the Missouri Valley Football Conference in passing, throwing 10 touchdowns for 1,208 yards with five interceptions.
And they’ve only won one game so far compared to last season’s four victories.
Which brings us to the defense.
Missouri State sits last in total defense in the MVFC, giving up 27 touchdowns and allowing an average of 41.2 points per game. They are last in sacks, only recording five — and three of those have been from senior Matt McClellan. They have the worst rush defense in the conference, allowing 1,193 yards on the ground and 16 touchdowns in just five games.
Yet six of the 11 defensive starters are returners to the line of scrimmage, and five of those six are upperclassmen. Why hasn’t the defense been able to improve?
There haven’t been many changes to the defense coaching staff in recent years, so the players and coaches know each other and the program well.
But maybe that’s the problem. Missouri State hasn’t had a winning season since 2007.
Head coach Dave Steckel was brought on in 2014, which means he hasn’t led a winning Bears team. That’s not to say he hasn’t accomplished other things, like bringing the “Bear Up” mentality or leading the Bears in 2016 to their first win over a Top-25 team in four years.
But fans want wins. And allowing opponents to score more than 30 points each game is not going to generate many of those.
Fans want to watch a good product on the field while enjoying a fun atmosphere in the stands — neither of which the Bears or Plaster Stadium are currently offering.
Part of the problem is the lack of student attendance.
Students aren’t excited for football games — they’re excited for tailgates.
Last season, Plaster Stadium averaged 6,908 fans in attendance over the first three home games — all of which were wins.
Oddly enough, this season, Plaster Stadium is averaging 8,602 fans in attendance after the first two home games, most of which are not students.
How can Missouri State change that?
Some say Missouri State students just don’t care enough about their team and lack school spirit.
That is false. Try telling an MSU student the Bears suck or Mizzou is better, and I guarantee they will argue and fight back.
Students have bought into the men’s basketball program because head coach Dana Ford is active on campus and goes to organizations and personally asks them to come.
Students have bought into the men’s soccer program because it is 14th in the nation and undefeated right now.
Students have bought into the baseball program because Hammons Field is a really cool environment.
MSU doesn’t have a school spirit problem, students just haven’t bought into the football program yet. And they won’t unless something changes. Coaches need to be more interactive with students, the team needs to perform better or Plaster Stadium needs some renovations.
One university found a way to spice up their football program earlier this season.
The University of Illinois recently opened a new football center, moving their coaches’ offices from Memorial Stadium to the Smith Center.
The university announced this summer it was renovating the coaches’ patio deck into a new lounge area for students during 2019 home football games.
The student patio, located in the north end zone and directly adjacent to the student section, includes couches, high-top tables and concessions — including beer sales.
University of Illinois senior Patrick Conomikes said he and his friends went to the student patio during the home opener. He said the space was full and created a more football atmosphere. He said it was easier to talk to friends about the game and engage in that type of setting.
According to an Illinois Athletics release, a recent gameday experience survey showed the desire for social spaces ranked high among fans between the ages 18-34.
Illinois hasn’t seen much of a change in attendance compared to last year at this point in the season.
Missouri State doesn’t have a problem getting students to show up on game day. The problem is they don’t stay after kickoff.
Missouri State has allowed the sale of beer and wine at football games to all fans over the age of 21 since 2016. So if Plaster Stadium were to develop a new concession stand area in the large, empty student section that sold beer and food, MSU students would have the option of moving the party inside the gates.
I’m not naive enough to say that a social space inside Plaster Stadium is a sure-fire way to get students to come to games. The product on the field has to be worth buying into.
But last year’s attendance and record shows us good football and wins aren’t enough. When Missouri State started 4-2 in 2018 with three wins at home, students still didn’t show up.
So it couldn’t hurt to take a look at some options to enhance the gameday experience for students.
Something needs to change in order for the football program to survive.