CARBONDALE, ILL. — Indiana State’s football team had a whole different spin on Beauty and the Beast on Saturday in its Missouri Valley Football Conference game at Southern Illinois.
For the Sycamores, beauty was a beast. A beastly defense.
A dominant performance by ISU’s defense – SIU was 1 of 12 on third down conversions – helped ISU end its nine-game SIU losing streak as it prevailed 24-3 at Saluki Stadium.
SIU’s offense had no answers for a stout ISU defense. The Salukis punted seven times and had just one first down in the third quarter. ISU forced three turnovers as Calvin Burnett had two interceptions and Donovan Layne had one.
“It was a well-deserved great team win that the defense set the tempo for. We fed off each other,” ISU coach Trent Miles said.
“We’ve got something special going. There were no big mistakes. Last week, we had two plays that gave up 140 yards to their running back [South Dakota State’s Zach Zenner]. We knew if we didn’t allow the big plays we’d have the result we’d want,” said ISU defensive end Ben Obaseki, who had one of ISU’s three quarterback sacks.
ISU (3-2, 1-1) struggled to move the ball too, the Sycamores punted nine times, but ISU broke through in the final quarter to take control of the game.
ISU running back Shakir Bell rushed for 160 yards on 33 carries and two touchdowns. Quarterback Mike Perish completed 11 of 21 passes for 73 yards and a touchdown.
It was the withering pressure the ISU defense put on the Salukis that gave Bell and company the chance to finally break through.
“We always have faith in our defense. We know we have to give them a break sometimes though. As an offense, we had a good game, but there’s a lot we could have done better. Our defense kept going out there and gave us chances,” Bell said.
The defensive nature of the game was established immediately. The Salukis, using a no-huddle offense, scored on their first drive, but the Sycamores limited the damage to an Austin Johnson field goal. The Salukis had 1st-and-goal at the ISU 4, but sacks by Jacolby Washington and Connor Underwood kept SIU out of the end zone.
ISU’s red zone defense – top-ranked in the MVFC entering the game – did the job again on the Salukis’ second drive. SIU’s no-huddle got it to the ISU 16, but the Sycamores didn’t allow the Salukis to get any further, and the reward was a missed field goal by Johnson.
The worm began to turn for ISU’s defense late in the opening stanza when Burnett earned his first interception – he picked off SIU quarterback Kory Faulkner at the ISU 10 on a long pass. While ISU didn’t make anything of the resulting series, SIU was not the same again offensively after the pick. Seven of the Salukis’ 15 first downs occurred before the interception.
“It’s preached to us to attack the ball in the air. I was just doing my job,” Burnett said.
The only early offensive highlight for ISU was a nine-yard run by Bell that pushed him past the 3,000-yard career rushing mark, but the Sycamores got going in the second quarter.
ISU found paydirt on its second drive of the period, though not without controversy. Bell had the big play in the 10-play, 74-yard drive – a 26-yard run that got ISU to the SIU 18 – but it appeared Bell fumbled before his momentum was halted. Officials ruled Bell down … and he might have stepped out of bounds before the play ended.
ISU took maximum advantage. Three plays later, Perish found Tanner Riley on the left side of the end zone for a 9-yard touchdown. ISU led 7-3 with 6:19 left in the first half.
Perish completed 9 of 10 passes for 62 yards in the first half, but was also sacked three times and had one fumble.
The defenses became impregnable in the third quarter. There were eight punts and the teams combined to earn just four first downs between them. Trying to come from behind, it seemed to drain SIU’s offense of any confidence. An injury to leading rusher Mika’il McCall didn’t help the Salukis’ cause.
“We definitely sensed it about halfway through the third quarter. We could feed off that energy. We could see that they were worried. Once you see that fear and worry, that’s when you strike as a defense,” Obaseki said.
ISU’s defense was so stout that the Sycamores chose to punt on 4th-and-1 from the SIU 38 to pin the punchless Salukis (2-3, 1-1) deep in their own territory. It proved to be a turning point.
ISU’s offense rewarded the ISU defense for its stinginess after that call. Bell had carries of 13, 8 and 11 yards to put ISU inside the SIU 5. Bell, who had briefly left the game in the third period, appropriately finished off the 49-yard drive with a 2-yard plunge to make it 14-3 with 13:02 left in the game.
“I’m getting older as a coach. I’m getting to the point where you don’t always have to win it on fourth down,” said Miles on the earlier decision to punt. “Sometimes you can punt it with a good defense and pin them down. We were able to get the ball back and cash it in. When you’re playing good defense, it’s easier to make those calls.”
A Layne interception gave ISU the chance to put the game out of reach. Layne intercepted Faulkner at the SIU 40 and returned it to the 31. Four plays later, Bell plunged in from two yards out to make it 21-3.
The victory helped ISU recover from its conference-opening home loss to South Dakota State.
“Tonight was a must-win. We couldn’t go out and lose. We told ourselves that we have to train to win. We can’t take any days off. We couldn’t take a step back or we’d fall off and we’d be done,” Obaseki said.
Tight end Michael Mardis left the game in the third quarter. According to Miles, he suffered a hip pointer. X-rays were negative. Wide receiver Donald Spencer was also injured, but his postgame condition was not known.
ISU plays host to Missouri State next Saturday for Homecoming.