Southern Illinois rode a career day by redshirt freshman running back Cameron Walter to a 32-22 victory over Missouri State Saturday afternoon at Robert W. Plaster Stadium. In the first start of his collegiate career, Walter rushed for 210 yards on 37 carries, and quarterback Ryan West threw for three touchdowns, including the go-ahead 36-yard strike to Tay Willis that snapped a 22-22 tie early in the fourth quarter.

Walter, who entered the contest with just 62 career rushing yards on 20 carries, powered the SIU running game all afternoon, accounting for all but 11 of the Salukis 221 rushing yards. His performance marked the first 200-yard rushing effort by a Missouri State opponent in three years and the best single-game total since Murray State’s Mike Harris racked up 212 yards on the ground in 2010.

After throwing for 227 yards against the Bears last November in Carbondale, West delivered a clutch performance for the No. 24 Salukis (6-4, 3-3 MVFC) in his first start of the 2014 season as well, completing 16-of-25 passes for 136 yards and three of SIU’s four touchdown passes on the day. Half of those passes were reeled in by Willis, who finished the day with 95 receiving yards and the first two-touchdown effort of his career.

Powered by a career-best 120 rushing yards from their own redshirt freshman back, Calan Crowder, Missouri State battled back from a 15-point first-quarter deficit, then knotted the score late in the third period on Marcelo Bonani’s third field goal of the game. But SIU’s sophomore signal-caller came up big on the first play after Brandon Willingham picked off a Kierra Harris pass and returned the ball 19 yards to the MSU 36 with 13:59 left in regulation. West found Willis streaking alone through the Bears’ secondary for the senior receiver’s second score of the day and what would turn out to be the game-winning touchdown.

MSU (4-6, 1-5 MVFC) appeared poised to answer the Salukis score with a drive of its own, as the Bears moved the ball to the SIU 19 thanks to an 18-yard completion to Julian Burton on third-and-20, followed by a four-yard carry by Crowder on fourth down. But the Bears’ second holding penalty of the drive and a Darius Merriweather sack of Harris for a seven-yard loss derailed the scoring chance, as Bonani misfired on a 43-yard field goal try with just under eight minutes to play.

The Salukis turned to Walter to put the game on ice, putting the ball in the rookie’s hands on six consecutive play calls. Walter answered the challenge, totaling 38 yards and helping peel nearly five minutes off the clock to set up Thomas Kinney’s 47-yard field goal that made it a 10-point game with 2:42 to play.

Crowder carried 25 times in establishing a Bears’ single-game best rushing total for the season, while Harris completed 13-of-29 passes for 159 yards and his 18th touchdown pass of the season—a 32-yard toss to Burton that put MSU on the board early in the second-quarter.

Southern Illinois wasted no time in seizing control of the contest, capping a 73-yard opening drive with a 24-yard Mark Iannotti-to-MyCole Pruitt touchdown connection on a fake field goal to score the first points of the afternoon. A successful two-point conversion made it an early 8-0 advantage for the Salukis, who would march 72 yards on their second possession of the game to extend the margin to 15 points.

Walter, who carried 20 times for 126 yards in the opening half, set the tone for SIU on the 10-play drive, ripping off a 14-yard run. He recorded a pair of seven-yard rushes as well, before West’s 21-yard completion to Willis set up SIU with a first down at the MSU 11. Following an offsides penalty on the Bears, West found Hans Carmien on a six-yard scoring strike to push the lead to 15-0 with 4:44 to play in the first period.

But the Bears bounced back early in the second quarter, taking advantage of a short SIU punt to cut into the visitors’ lead. On second-and-seven at the SIU 32, Harris threw a dart to Burton, who beat a pair of defenders to the end zone for MSU’s first points of the game with 12:53 left in the half.

Next, the Missouri State defense came up with a pair of takeaways to flip the momentum further in favor of the home club. On the second play of the ensuing SIU drive, McKinze James stripped Walter of the ball, and Terrence Neuhauser fell on it at the SIU 44. The Bears’ offense failed to take advantage of the gift, but Chris Sullens’ 37-yard punt would pin the Salukis deep in their own territory and set the stage for another big defensive play.

Brandon Cheaton stepped in front of West’s second-down pass at the Saluki 24 and returned the Bears’ 11th interception of the season 12 yards to set up another scoring chance. After Crowder rushed for eight yards on first down, the SIU defense held its ground, forcing a 22-yard Bonani field goal that pulled MSU to within 15-10.

The Bears’ defense continued its second-quarter surge on SIU’s next two possessions, yielding a total of just five yards. Kurran Blamey burst through the SIU line to block Nick Neidig’s punt from the MSU 13, and LeMarcus Stewart scooped up the loose ball and carried it the final two yards to pay dirt, putting MSU on top with just 2:46 remaining on the clock.

SIU countered with a punishing drive that covered 62 yards in just 2:09 to reclaim the upper hand. Walter carried the bulk of the load, breaking off runs of 12 and 13 yards and totaling 37 yards on five carries on the drive, which was capped by West’s four-yard scoring toss to Willis with just 37 seconds to play before intermission.

Andrew Beisel spearheaded the MSU defense with a career-high 16 tackles—the most recorded by a Bear defender in more than two years—while fellow senior Caleb Schaffitzel added a season-high 15 stops to move up to the No. 8 spot on the Bears’ career tackles chart.

Missouri State closes out the home portion of its schedule next Saturday (Nov. 15) with a 2:05 p.m. game against No. 1 North Dakota State.

Story courtesy: Missouri State Athletics