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Missouri Valley gives major programs major workout

Associated Press Modified: September 2, 2012 at 3:04 pm •  Published: September 2, 2012
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MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) — If the Big 12 ever wants to expand to 12 members again, the league's powerbrokers might want to take a look at poaching a couple schools from the Missouri Valley Conference.

Of course, Kansas and Kansas State might quickly object.

Both of them had to work against schools from the Football Championship Subdivision in their season openers Saturday. They weren't alone, either: Wisconsin had to make a late defensive stand to beat Northern Iowa, Indiana State took Indiana to the brink, and Pittsburgh was embarrassed by Youngstown State in Paul Chryst's debut as Panthers coach.

Yes, it was a banner day for the Missouri Valley, a league better known for its hoops but one that now has 11 football wins against members of BCS conferences since 2000.

"They might not be big-name schools, but you can't sleep on them," Kansas State defensive back Nigel Malone said shortly after the No. 22 Wildcats rattled off 35 fourth-quarter points to beat Missouri State 51-9 on Saturday night.

The final score may have been lopsided, but the game certainly wasn't.

The Bears, winners of two games a year ago and picked to finish last in the 10-team Missouri Valley, had a healthy advantage in total offense late in the third quarter, when Austin Witmer's third field goal pulled Missouri State into a 9-all tie.

Suddenly, a festive sellout crowd was starting to fret, no doubt remembering the Wildcats' last-gasp victory over Eastern Kentucky in their season opener a year ago.

Kansas State eventually blitzed the Bears down the stretch — a 95-yard touchdown run by John Hubert, an 89-yard punt return by Tramaine Thompson, a couple touchdown passes by Collin Klein and Braden Wilson's TD run put the game out of reach. But the fact that Missouri State was still in the game by that point was a big surprise.

"I thought our guys played their tail ends off for three quarters," said Missouri State coach Terry Allen, who led Northern Iowa for several years before a failed try coaching Kansas.

"They competed hard, and I was really proud of them," Allen said, "and I'm disappointed by the final score and how it all unraveled at the end. I told them that we can be a good football team. I believe that, and we just can't let the fourth-quarter snowball have a reaction on us."

Things started to snowball for South Dakota State down the stretch, too.

The Jackrabbits scored on a 99-yard touchdown run to take an early lead against the Jayhawks, and Justin Syrovatka's field goal midway through the fourth quarter made it a one-touchdown game.

Kansas managed to tack on a late score for a 31-17 victory in coach Charlie Weis' debut.

While the Big 12 schools managed to get off to winning starts, albeit in somewhat sluggish fashion, Pittsburgh wasn't nearly as fortunate against Youngstown State.

In their first game under Chryst, the Panthers yielded more than 200 yards rushing and were outgained on offense, while the Penguins converted 11 of 16 third downs and employed a game plan that resulted in a more-than-10-minute edge in time of possession.

Little wonder that Youngstown State, which went just 6-5 last season, had already put the game away by the time David Brown kicked a late field goal for the Penguins' final points in a 34-17 victory at Heinz Field.

"One of our fundamentals for success, we have 16 of them, is expect to win. After being here two-and-a-half years, I think we're finally in a position to win football games," said coach Eric Wolford, who is trying to restore the Penguins to the level they reached under Jim Tressel.

"This place is about championships and one game is not going to define us," Wolford said. "We have a 24-hour rule: Enjoy it tomorrow or whatever the case may be, and then we've got to move on. We've got bigger fish to fry. That's what we're measured by."

Perhaps there are bigger fish to fry, but this was one whale of a win.

Northern Iowa nearly pulled off an even bigger upset when it visited Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday. The Panthers trailed 19-0 early in the third quarter, but they scored three touchdowns in a span of about 8 minutes to claw their way back into the game.

They had the ball facing fourth-and-1 at the Wisconsin 41 with about 3 minutes left when a pass from Sawyer Kollmorgen fell incomplete. The Badgers' Montee Ball carried for two first downs, allowing Wisconsin to run out the clock.

"When you play a team like Wisconsin, you can draw all the Xs and Os you want, but until you can line up and beat them at the line of scrimmage you have no chance," Northern Iowa coach Mark Farley said. "I'm very pleased with our team, their effort, staying with the game, not looking at the scoreboard and looking at the next play."

That's something that most of the Missouri Valley did just fine on Saturday.

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AP Sports Writers Chris Jenkins in Madison, Wis., and Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.