Behind three first-half touchdown passes by sophomore quarterback Kierra Harris and another dominant defensive effort, the Missouri State Bears thrilled a Homecoming crowd of 10,076 at Plaster Field Saturday with a commanding 42-3 win over Western Illinois. The Bears (3-6, 3-3 MVFC) reeled off 35 unanswered points to seal their third straight victory, marking MSU’s longest win streak since the 2004 season.

Harris, who recorded all 13 of his completions in the first half for 130 yards, led Missouri State’s quick-strike offense that posted six scoring drives on the day, none of which lasted more than 2:26. He guided the Bears on three second-quarter touchdown drives to build a 28-3 halftime advantage after the Missouri State defense twice set up the offense with prime field position. The Bears never looked back, adding a pair of second-half touchdowns to put the game out of reach, as the MSU defense limited the Leathernecks to just 220 yards of total offense for the game while forcing three interceptions.

Mikael Cooper-Falls also turned in a big performance for the Bears, finishing the day with a game and season-highs of 95 yards rushing on 12 carries and 112 all-purpose yards. The Springfield native piled up 73 yards in the second half–including his second touchdown of the season–to help ice the victory for Missouri State.

Sophomore safety Caleb Schaffitzel sparked the Bears’ strong defensive performance, intercepting two passes and recording nine tackles on the day. Junior Nick Canavan played a vital role for MSU as well, totaling a game-high 13 tackles and half a sack, as the Bears held the Leathernecks to 11-of-26 passing for 70 yards and limited WIU to conversions on just 6-of-20 third-down attempts.

MSU’s 39-point margin of victory marked the largest for the Bears since a 63-7 Homecoming beat down of Indiana State five years ago to the day. Saturday’s 42-point outburst represented not only the Bears’ top point total of 2012, but also their most-productive offensive performance since a 51-41 victory over Southern Illinois on October 30, 2010.

The Bears fired the first salvo of the day late in the opening quarter, as Harris’s 24-yard scamper ignited an 80-yard drive that ultimately put MSU on top, 7-0. Harris hooked up with Dorian Buford on a 38-yard scoring strike to give the Bears the lead with just under two minutes left in the opening period.

Western Illinois (3-5, 1-4 MVFC) answered the Bears’ first score with a 15-play march deep into Missouri State territory, relying heavily on a ground game that accounted for 43 of the Leathernecks’ 55 yards on the drive. WIU ran the ball on nine straight plays and had a 2nd and goal from the 5-yard line before a false start penalty and an incomplete pass halted the drive. The visitors instead settled for a 27-yard Pat Smith field goal to pull to within 7-3 with 9:24 to go in the half.

But Missouri State responded with a quick-strike drive that covered 71 yards in just 1:38, as Harris connected with Cadarrius Dotson on a three-yard scoring pass with 7:40 to play in the half. Vernon Scott’s 21-yard run kicked off the drive, and Harris found Cooper-Falls for a key 17-yard completion to set up a 1st-and-10 at the WIU 17-yard line after a personal foul penalty against the Leathernecks tacked on an additional 15 yards. A Matt Thayer reception picked up 14 more yards to the 3-yard line, and Harris found Dotson on the fifth play of the drive for a 14-3 MSU advantage.

After the two clubs traded a pair of interceptions over a three-minute span, the Bears’ defense stuffed the Leathernecks on a three-and-out deep in their own territory, and Sybhrian Berry returned a short punt 11 yards to the WIU 25-yard line to put MSU in scoring position once again. Five plays later, Harris connected with Tre Kelley in the back corner of the end zone for a 4-yard scoring pass, increasing MSU’s lead to 21-3 with 1:26 to go.

The Bears’ defense came up big once again before the break, as Howard Scarborough stepped in front of a Hayden Northern pass at the WIU 24 to give MSU the ball one more time. A critical facemask penalty and a pair of Cooper-Falls rushes took the ball to the 1-yard line, and Harris carried it over the goal line with just eight seconds left on the clock.

Despite dominating the third-quarter time of possession (11:42 to 3:18), Western Illinois fared no better coming out of intermission, producing just 39 yards of offense in the period.

The Bears, meanwhile, got their running game back in gear late in the quarter, as Cooper-Falls accounted for all 55 of Missouri State’s yards on its fifth scoring drive of the afternoon, including an MSU season-long 39-yard jaunt. He capped the drive by taking it in from the 3-yard line, and Austin Witmer’s fifth PAT conversion of the game made it a 35-3 game with 2:25 left in the period.

MSU kept it on the ground again early in the fourth, traversing 43 yards on 5 rushes to find the end zone and make it a 42-3 contest. Ashton Glaser’s 21-yard dash to the WIU 4 highlighted the drive, and Cedric Miller capped it off with his first touchdown as a Bear on a one-yard run.

Caulton Ray and Nikko Watson paced the Leathernecks’ attack with a combined 147 yards on 42 carries.

Up next, the Bears conclude the home portion of their schedule with a 1 p.m. game against third-ranked North Dakota State next Saturday (Nov. 3) at Plaster Field.

Story courtesy Missouri State Athletics