The Missouri State football team was slated to open its season at home against Illinois State University on Saturday, Feb. 20. However, due to poor field conditions and adverse winter weather, the game was canceled and will be played on April 17.
“None of the conditions were right,” senior offensive lineman Ian Fitzgerald said. “I don’t think any of the sidelines were ready. There were definitely ice patches on the field Friday and Saturday and the stands were completely snowed in too.”
The cancelation gives the Bears some extra time to prepare for their new season-opening opponent, the Western Illinois University Leathernecks.
That extra time gave the Bears some time to figure out who would be the starting quarterback for the season opener. Head coach Bobby Petrino announced that redshirt freshman Jaden Johnson, who started all three games in the fall, will get the start against WIU.
“He’s earned that,” Petrino said. “He’s done a good job in practice. The other guys have competed and played hard and have done good jobs and have made it a good competition.”
Johnson completed 49.4% of his passes for 383 yards, zero touchdowns and four interceptions in the fall season.
“He’s gotta take care of the ball, there’s no doubt about that,” Petrino said. “He’s very resilient. He’s got a lot of confidence in himself. His teammates have a lot of confidence in him. He believes in himself and his abilities.”
WIU was the only team MSU beat last year. The Bears won with a score of 37-31 in a triple-overtime thriller in Macomb, Illinois.
“I look forward to it,” Fitzgerald said. “I’ve heard their defensive line has gone through some personnel changes. I heard their defensive coordinator got changed up. Me and the rest of the offensive line are ready to get after these guys on (WIU’s) defensive line.”
Petrino and his staff prioritized bringing in good offensive line talent to MSU. After a fall season where the offensive line play was less than desirable, Petrino made some personnel changes to that group.
“There’ll be some new guys out there, so everything won’t be like they’ve been working together for a long time, but I like what they’re doing,” Petrino said.
Petrino plans to roll out an offensive line with senior Daniel Allen and Ian Fitzgerald at tackles, sophomore Landon Bebee and junior Paul Sogialofa at guard and sophomore Ryan Suliafu at center.
“All the guys that they’ve brought in so far have done nothing but improve the offensive line as far as chemistry and as far as the actual ability to play ball,” Fitzgerald said.
The additions to the offensive line and running back group are transforming MSU into a team that will run the ball more in the spring season.
“Our running backs have been doing a good job,” Petrino said. “(Jeremiah Wilson) is back to full speed. Tobias Little has been doing a good job. Our freshman from Allen, Texas has been carrying the ball and making big plays catching the ball out of the backfield.”
Freshman Celdon Manning is listed as the No.1 running back on the MSU depth chart. With a backfield that is as deep and explosive as MSU’s, there will be multiple backs that get touches on Saturday.
Defensively, Petrino wants to make an effort to stop the Leatherneck rushing attack.
“They try to run everything through their run game first,” Petrino said. “They do quick play action and then some deep over routes and deep post routes to try and take some shots down the field.”
Leatherneck senior Connor Sampson was WIU’s leader in passing yards and touchdowns in the 2019 season with 2,092 yards and 13 touchdowns.
“We’ve gotta get pressure on him and make him uncomfortable in the pocket,” Petrino said. “It’s going to be really important to stop the run first and be able to transition from our run defense to our pass rush.”
The game will be played on Saturday, Feb. 27 at 12 p.m. in Macomb, Illinois. You can watch the game on ESPN3 or ESPN+. The audio broadcast of the game will be on the MSU Radio Network.
Follow TJ Scott on Twitter, @iamtjs_
Subscribe to The Standard's free weekly newsletter here.