Jay Thomas, in his first year in charge of the Demons' program, begins his seventh season as a head coach and knows a game can be greatly influenced by a bad travel experience by the visiting team.
"I've seen teams that were put in a real tough position by what happened between the time they left home and they took the field for pregame warmup. To win a road game, you first have to win the road trip," he said Monday, when the Demons went through a two-hour practice honing the game plan against the Bears.
NSU's team buses will head north from Natchitoches about 6:30 Tuesday evening, rolling toward Little Rock for an overnight stay. They'll complete the nine-hour journey to Springfield, Mo., Wednesday including a stop in middle America's tourist haven, Branson, just 44 miles south of the Missouri State campus.
"I've always believed whenever possible, road trips should be fun and they should be educational," said Thomas. "I'm sure some of our young men have never seen mountains. They will Wednesday. They'll get to walk through caverns, and they might even play some miniature golf."
The Demons will work out at Plaster Field, not a new venue to Thomas, late Wednesday afternoon, going through their paces and getting the lay of the land. Thomas has coached there before as an assistant at rival Southeast Missouri from 1993-98.
"I know which is the visitors' sideline, where our locker room is, all the streets around the stadium. That's a little edge opposed to a lot of non-conference games when you don't have any idea until you arrive what you're getting into," said Thomas. "When we get up Thursday morning, we'll have our bearings, we'll be in a good frame of mind, and we better be. Missouri State is a tough opponent."
The Bears return 10 defensive starters and an experienced offensive lineup that accounted for 100 percent of their rushing and passing yardage last year. Safety Caleb Schaffitzel earned All-America honors as a junior with 109 tackles and five interceptions, and is on the Buck Buchanan Award watch list. Texarkana (Ark.) product Kierra Harris was the starting quarterback in Missouri State's last five games, when the Bears went 3-2 with losses only to FCS champion North Dakota State and perennial power Northern Iowa.
MSU is coached by Terry Allen, in his eighth season after leading Northern Iowa to great success and also coaching at Kansas. It's the first meeting since 1989 between the teams.