Austin Witmer’s 33-yard field goal as time expired capped Missouri State’s fourth-quarter comeback and handed the Bears a 27-24 victory over South Dakota Saturday afternoon at Plaster Field. The Bears, who trailed 21-3 at halftime, scored 17 points over the final five-and-a-half minutes of regulation to post their first win of the 2012 season in dramatic fashion.

Missouri State, which entered play Saturday without having scored a single fourth-quarter point in its first six games this season, mustered just 283 yards of total offense on the day, but 173 came in the final quarter, and the Bears played turnover-free football for the first time in 2012. Sophomore quarterback Kierra Harris turned in a strong performance in his first starting assignment of the season, finishing 20-of-33 for a career-best 214 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while Julian Burton totaled 166 all-purpose yards, including three punt returns for 68 yards and four receptions for 98 yards.

Harris led the Bears’ late charge, connecting with Burton on a 60-yard scoring strike with 5:27 to play, then finding Eric Christophel from 25 yards out on the equalizing touchdown with just under two minutes left on the clock.

The Bears’ defense also came up big late in the contest, as Andrew Beisel and Mike Crutcher teamed up to force a critical fumble that ultimately led to Christophel’s game-tying touchdown. MSU then came up with a key stop on the Coyotes’ ensuing drive, and Burton’s 30-yard punt return–a Missouri State season long–set up Witmer’s second field goal of the day that handed the Bears their first home victory since a November 20, 2010 win over North Dakota State.

After yielding 265 yards of total offense in falling behind by 18 points in the opening half, the MSU defense stiffened in the second stanza, limiting the Coyotes to 110 yards after the half. Anthony Grady played a starring role in the turnaround, totaling two of his three sacks in the second half and coming up with the key recovery of the momentum-swinging USD fumble with just over three minutes to play. The Bears’ defense also received a lift from Beisel and Crutcher, who finished with 12 and 10 tackles, respectively, while leading tackler Caleb Schaffitzel came up with 11 stops–his fourth double-digit single-game total this season.

The late turnaround came on the heels of a dominant first-half effort from the Coyotes in their first-ever meeting with the Bears, who committed eight penalties for 75 yards in the opening half. South Dakota quarterback Josh Vander Maten accounted for 197 yards of total offense in the half, including 80 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns, to lead USD’s attack. The Coyotes dominated most offensive categories over the first 30 minutes of play, including first downs gained (17 to 5) and time of possession (22:16 to 7:44).

South Dakota took control of the game on their first possession of the afternoon, getting a two-yard touchdown plunge from Marcus Sims to cap a 10-play, 75-yard drive for a 7-0 lead. The Bears shot themselves in the foot with a barrage of penalties early in the contest, including a key defensive pass interference call that kept the Coyotes’ opening drive alive after the MSU defense appeared to have stopped the USD offense to force a fourth down near midfield. Vander Maten took full advantage of the opportunity and hooked up with Terrence Terry for completions of 13 and 11 yards to take the ball to the 2-yard line before Sims would walk into the end zone for the first points of the afternoon.

After a three-and-out for the Bears’ offense, the Coyotes went right back to work with their second scoring drive of more than four minutes to take a commanding 14-point advantage. USD kept the ball on the ground for seven of the eight plays on the drive and benefitted from another costly MSU penalty to build its double-digit lead. Vander Maten appeared to have taken a sack on the first play of the possession, but Grady was flagged 15 yards for a facemask to negate the play. The visitors proceeded to march 54 yards to pay dirt–all on the ground–with Vander Maten taking it in from 12 yards out for the score with 4:44 to play in the first quarter.

The Bears offense got into the act late in the opening period, as Harris scampered for 12 yards, then drove MSU to the Coyote 18-yard line with back-to-back completions of 15 and 11 yards to Cadarrius Dotson and Matt Thayer, respectively. Another personal foul penalty stalled the drive, however, and the Bears settled for a career-long 47-yard field goal by Witmer to break into the scoring column at the 1:26 mark in the period.

Vander Maten made a pair of key plays on the Coyotes’ final drive of the opening half, escaping MSU defenders on two separate plays before connecting through the air for long gains. The sophomore signal-caller then carried it in from the one with just 0:26 left on the clock to stretch the visitor’s lead to 21-3.

The Bears took advantage of their best starting field position of the day to reach the end zone for the first time on their second possession of the second half. Burton returned a punt 14 yards to set up MSU at the South Dakota 45-yard line, then hauled in a crucial 18-yard reception on a third down and 13 from the USD 48. Mikael Cooper-Falls picked up two yards on a fourth and one at the five, then scored from three yards out on the ensuing play to slice the Bears’ deficit to 21-10.

USD responded with a nine-play drive that covered nearly five minutes and ended with a 44-yard Kevin Robb field goal with 3:20 to play in the third.

Missouri State employed a quick-strike approach to score its first fourth-quarter points of the season and trim the margin to just seven points, as Burton hauled in a Harris pass at the USD 16-yard line and waltzed into the end zone. Next, it was the defense’s turn to shine on a second and 12 at the South Dakota 33, as Beisel wrapped up Vander Maten and Crutcher punched the ball free. Grady picked up the loose ball to set up the Bears near midfield, before Harris and Cooper-Falls ripped off long runs on successive snaps to bring MSU within striking distance of the game-tying score. Harris then found Christophel open over the middle and the redshirt freshman found the goal line for the first time in his MSU career to knot the score at the 1:45 mark.

After a 14-yard completion on the Coyotes’ first play of the next drive, Grady plowed through the line for his third sack of the day. The Bears defense held to force a USD punt with just under a minute to play, and Burton weaved his way down the far sideline to the Coyote 42-yard line.

Harris then found Thayer for a nine-yard gain, and Cooper-Falls picked up three yards and a first down before a pass interference call near the goal line gave Witmer all the field position he would need to boot the game-winner.

Following the strong first half, Vander Maten completed his day 13-of-22 passing for 164 yards and finished with 72 yards on 24 carries, thanks in large part to five Missouri State sacks. Sims carried the ball 108 yards on 23 carries to help the Coyotes amass 211 yards on the ground.

Up next, the Bears (1-6, 1-3 MVFC) will put their win streak on the line at No. 14 Illinois State 6-1, 3-1 MVFC) next Saturday (Oct. 20) in a 1 p.m. game at Hancock Stadium in Normal, Ill.

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