Of the 5,000-plus home fans who attended Thursday night’s season opener, nearly all of them remained in the stands by the game’s end, standing and applauding their Missouri Southern football team as it exited the field at Fred G. Hughes Stadium.
For the Lions, the night didn’t end in triumph. But in a way, it did.
“I haven’t seen this team play like that in years,” one fan said as he made his way toward the exit gate.
By halftime, it was evident that MSSU needed a miracle to claim its first win in a season opener since 2013. At one point in the second half, a miracle was exactly what the Lions seemed destined to pull off.
But despite scoring 21 unanswered points to trim a 27-point deficit to six early in the fourth quarter, Southern ultimately came up short in a 39-27 loss to Nebraska-Kearney.
For an MSSU team that posted a 1-10 record and was outscored by an average of 49 points per game a season ago, perhaps most of the MSSU faithful viewed Thursday night as a sign of progress.
First-year Southern head coach Jeff Sims, however, described it as a performance that showed flashes of the type of team it could be — albeit, an incomplete performance.
“I don’t like to lose,” Sims said. “I don’t like to lose first games, I don’t like to lose last games. The fact of the matter is we played one half of football. When I talked to the team after the game, they had more fight in their eyes than we did in the first half.”
A forgettable opening 30 minutes for Southern saw the Lopers dominate both sides of the ball as they amassed 361 yards of offense and limited the Lions to just 106.
In the midst of a 33-point half for UNK, Southern’s lone bright spot came in the form of a four-play, 75-yard drive that was capped by a 31-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jacob Park — a former signal caller at Iowa State — to running back Charles West.
In the other six offensive drives Southern had in the first half, it recorded just 29 yards combined.
Then the second half began, and the Lions began to flip the script.
“The illusion is that (coaches) go in and give some fiery speech at halftime,” Sims said. “I don’t want to use the word plead, but we actually went in and told the guys, ‘Hey, you practiced really hard and you put in a lot of time. Why don’t you just go out there and play?’ “
The Lions responded immediately out of the break, scoring 14 third-quarter points and eventually making it a one-score game early in the fourth on a 93-yard touchdown pass from Park to wide receiver Dwayne Lawson.
Lawson, who took part in MSSU’s quarterback competition throughout the team’s fall camp, finished the night with six catches for 179 yards and a pair of touchdowns — one score coming on a 29-yard reception midway through the third quarter that trimmed the UNK lead to 33-20.
After the Southern defense forced a fourth UNK three-and-out of the second half, the Lions had an opportunity to take their first lead with 11:36 remaining. But after driving into UNK territory, an intentional grounding call and a couple of key defensive stops resulted in a turnover on downs that gave the Lopers the ball with 9:12 left.
From there, Nebraska-Kearney put the nail in the coffin with 14-play, 68-yard touchdown drive that milked nearly seven minutes off the clock.
“It started rolling and good things started happening (in the second half),” Sims said. “I thought we were going to pull it out. I had been in enough of those games where I thought we could do it. But even when we couldn’t do it, it was because there was just a couple, two or three plays that (wouldn’t go our way).”
MSSU finished with 410 yards on offense while UNK amassed 492.
Park, who started 0-for-8 passing and was 3-for-13 at the half, finished 19-of-41 for 351 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions.
“You don’t like getting beat,” Park said. “Anybody that plays the game of football doesn’t like being shutout or being beat by 30 points. So (in the second half), I think it was a lot of anger and frustration, and we started channeling our energy in the right direction. … We are a new team and I’m proud of the way we came out in the second half, but we still have a long way to go and a lot to learn. Me included.”
West registered 109 yards of offense — 31 yards on 11 carries and 73 yards on three catches — and a pair of touchdowns.
Defensively the Lions limited UNK to 131 yards and six points in the second half.
“We just started all buying in more and realized we needed to work as a team,” said MSSU sophomore linebacker Richard Jordan Jr., who led the Lions with 18 tackles and 1 1/2 tackles for loss. “We have something to work with after this game. We just have to keep going and get back to work tomorrow.”
Southern hits the road next week, taking on Lincoln on Thursday at 6 in Jefferson City, Mo.