JOPLIN, Mo. – With 64 new players and a fresh coaching staff led by first-year head coach Jeff Sims, Missouri Southern presented intrigue and uncertainty entering the first game of the regular season against University of Nebraska at Kearney.
The unknown didn’t faze the Lopers early in the game, though. They overwhelmed the Lions in the first half to grab a sizeable lead, which was critical as the Lions nearly came back in the second half. The Lopers fended off the Lions to prevail 39-27 Thursday night in Joplin, Mo.
“I thought we did a great job in the first half,” UNK coach Josh Lynn said. “Give those guys credit. Their quarterback came alive in the second half, and (Missouri Southern quarterback Jacob) Park is a very good player. Their receivers did a really good job too.”
Park, an Iowa State transfer, carried the Lions’ offense in the second half as they shaved a 27-point lead to six. Park connected on three touchdown passes, including a 93-yard throw to Dwayne Lawson, to cut the Lopers’ lead to 33-27 with 13 minutes, 42 seconds left.
Then the Loper offense stepped up. Senior quarterback Alex McGinnis rumbled up the middle for a 2-yard touchdown to cap a 14-play, 68-yard drive that lasted nearly seven minutes. Although the Lopers failed on the two-point conversion, they held an 11-point lead to seal the victory.
Last year, the Lopers lost three games where they led at halftime. In those contests, UNK’s inability to execute and make adjustments quick enough in the third quarter played a role in those letdowns.
Thursday, the Lopers were outscored 14-0 in the third quarter.
“Moving forward we have to do something with our third quarter,” Lynn said. “It is trouble, but what I was extremely proud of is that we came out and leaned on our offensive line.
“We put one in the end zone when we needed to. That’s something we didn’t do last year, and that’s a great carry over tonight to get us over the hump a little bit.”
The Lopers (1-0) received the opening kickoff and quickly grabbed the lead. They displayed a balanced offense on their first series and scored on a McGinnis 8-yard touchdown pass to Zach Blaschko to cap a seven-play drive.
With less than three minutes left in the first quarter, Park fired a pass straight into the hands of UNK safety Blake Bubak. The Lopers capitalized on the mistake, scoring five seconds into the second quarter on a McGinnis 10-yard touchdown pass to Dayton Sealey.
About five minutes later, the Lopers added to their lead. McGinnis sent an errant pitch to Montrez Jackson, who picked the ball off the turf and scurried to the end zone for a 10-yard score.
The Lions (0-1) quickly responded, moving the ball 75 yards through the air to break the Lopers’ shutout bid. Park completed a 31-yard pass to Charles West to cut into the Lopers’ lead, 20-6.
On the ensuing drive, the Lopers turned to redshirt freshman quarterback TJ Davis, who played the third, sixth and ninth series. He drove the Lopers 77 yards in five plays, all on the ground. After Davis scrambled for a 26-yard gain, he carried the ball on the next play for a 9-yard score with about seven minutes left in the first half.
Davis made notable strides throughout the spring season and preseason to earn the backup spot. Lynn said the Lopers will likely continue to use a two-quarterback system moving forward.
“We just feel we need to bring him along a little bit because with as much as we run the ball, especially quarterback runs, he brings another dynamic with running the ball,” Lynn said. “With Alex, he’s more of a bruiser and TJ is a little more swift. It makes teams prepare for two quarterbacks.”
On the Lopers’ next drive, McGinnis fired a strike to running back David Goodwin on a wheel route for a 31-yard score.
The touchdown put the Lopers ahead 33-6 and it appeared they had the game locked up.
UNK featured a balanced offensive attack in the first half, racking up 361 yards. They finished the contest with 302 rushing yards and 190 passing yards.
McGinnis showed improvement in the passing game, completing 14 of 17 passes for three touchdowns and 190 yards.
“Our play-action game was good tonight,” Lynn said. “A big part of our success in the first half was because of the play-action game. That’s Alex putting the ball in the receivers’ hands that we need to get the ball to.”