Dragons Football Blown Out in Bowl, Search for Silver Linings

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By: Griffin Nelson, nelsongr@mnstate.edu

An abbreviated version of this story was edited and published in the Forum of Fargo Moorhead on Dec. 1.

It’s difficult to say who experiences more emotion about the last football game of a career: the players or their mothers.

Lynne Moore knew the game would be bittersweet. The pain of this finality flooded her eyes hours before Evan Moore, Lynne’s son, took the field for the last time as a member of MSUM Football.

It happened to be the program’s most important game in two and a half decades.

“It’s been such a great experience for Evan and these boys,” Lynne Moore said, fighting back tears. “It’s a great way to end this run and his career.”

The Dragons found themselves at the apogee of what was already their most successful season as a member of the NCAA Division II ranks. An 8-3 record marked their most wins since the 1991 season and propelled the program to its first postseason appearance since 1994.

Earning a bid to the Mineral Water Bowl, one of only four bowl games designed for theDivision II programs that did not reach the playoffs, MSUM traveled south toExcelsior Springs, Missouri to take on the Missouri S&T Miners.

It was not their day.

MissouriS&T (10-2) took advantage of seven MSUM (8-4) turnovers, as they recovered from a slow first half to take the Mineral Water Bowl for the first time in school history, 51-16.

Recap

Sunlight peeked briefly an hour before kickoff but gave way to general overcast and spurts of rain on an aggressively chilly day at Excelsior Springs High School, the bowl’s annual host.

The first quarter provided plenty of intrigue—and follies—while both offensesstruggled to find their footing.

Following a three-and-out by the Miners to start the game, the Dragons’ first drive ended when a direct snap flew over running back Zach Simons’ head, which was recovered by MST at the MSUM 34.

The Miners’ drive stalled, and a bad snap on the field goal attempt led to a blocked field goal by MSUM, who returned the ball to the MST 37. The next play, quarterback Bryce Meehl threw a pass that was deflected and picked by MST’s Ben Straatman, ending a wild series of events to start the game.

The Dragons took the lead with 4:10 left in the first quarter, as Meehl lofted a pass deep down the middle to Grady Bresnahan, who caught it and turned on the jets to hit pay dirt for a 62-yard touchdown and break the scoreless tie at6-0, a score that would hold over until the second quarter.

It would be the last time the Dragons held the lead.

Missouri S&T scored 21 unanswered points as they found their rhythm in the ground game. The Miners posted 110 yards rushing in the second quarter alone, including touchdown runs by running back Deshawn Jones and quarterback Tyler Swart.

“I think our defense really held up well early,” MSUM Coach Steve Laqua said. “We were so out of sync offensively, gave them a lot of short fields. Against a good offense, you’re eventually going to pay for that.”

A late field goal by the Dragons brought the score to 21-9 heading into halftime. It all went downhill from there.

Meehl was picked off for the third time on the Dragons’ first drive of second half, this time by Rod Chapman at the MST 39. The Miners turned the favorable field position into another score on a 51-yard catch-and-run from Swart to Peter McAlister, extending their lead to 18.

From there, Missouri S&T drove with a lead foot, running roughshod through a worn-out Dragons’ squad. They capitalized on two more Meehl turnovers, including a fumble that turned into a 48-yard scoop-and-score by Tershawn Wharton. Wharton finished the game as the defensive MVP, compiling eight tackles and 1.5 sacks, along with the touchdown that turned the game ugly, 34-9.

There were questions heading into the game about Meehl’s and fellow MSUM quarterback Jakup Sinani’s availability, both projecting as game-time decisions. Laqua felt both were ready to play and decided to ride Meehl’s hot hand, the one that heroically led the Dragons past Bemidji State and St. Cloud State to send the team to Missouri.

Sinani saw the field for one drive, ending in a mishandled snap and another fumble recovery for the Miners.

With the game far out of reach late in the fourth quarter, Laqua provided Evan Moore with a final appearance. Moore struggled with injuries during his senior year, making it difficult to carve out a role in MSUM’s talented receiving corp.

On that drive in the fourth quarter, Moore caught a pass along the left sideline in the end zone, dragging his toes to secure his first touchdown of the season and last of his career.

“It felt great,” Moore recalled. “Not how we wanted to finish but having one of my good buddies Bryce (Meehl) toss it to me to finish off our careers here is pretty cool.”

Lynne Moore met Evan with a smile after the game. The moment that will last her son a lifetime was enough to ease the pain of a disappointing finale.

For MSUM football, Moore’s touchdown was merely a consolation, a bright moment against a bleak affair.

But perspective is key.

Missouri S&T, resolving their own severe playoff drought of 68 years, expected to have a successful season. Coming off a successful 2017 campaign, the Miners were primed for a breakout, and were possibly a game away from the NCAA playoffs.

The Dragons were picked to finish tenth in the Northern Sun preseason Coaches’ Poll. They finished third.

“We got everyone on the roster to buy into a ‘week-at-a-time’ approach,” Laqua said before the bowl game. “It helped us make one plus one equal three.”

For a blossoming program, turning production into notarized accomplishment is key. Laqua and his crew remain optimistic about the future of their program.

“Regardless of the outcome, this was a big game for our university. As I told our guys, today wasn’t our day. But eventually our day will come.”

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