TERRE HAUTE —
Indiana State’s football team had its last practice of the 2013 season Thursday and it had a jovial climax.
Coach Mike Sanford gathered ISU’s 14 seniors in the west end zone and had the team surround them in a 10-yard arc with a tackling dummy near the 10-yard line.
Each senior told his teammates what his experience at ISU has meant to him and what he hopes today’s Senior Day game against Southern Illinois will be the culmination of. The senior then sprints the 10 yards to hit the tackle dummy as his younger teammates cheered him on.
“It’s a thing I’ve been around before that’s a nice tradition we want to start. We call it Senior Tackle. They talk about their experience as a Sycamore football player and what advice they want to give the players. They make their last tackle in front of their teammates,” ISU coach Mike Sanford said.
It added a bit of cheer to a Sycamore team that badly needs it. So much so, that seniors Tyler Stafford and Russell Jones were joyfully carried off the field by their defensive line teammates.
The fun and emotional climax still couldn’t mask the problems the Sycamores have had this season. Several seniors, including Larry King, Calvin Burnett, Tyler Boyd and Taje High — major contributors all — were in street clothes. They represented a few of the many Sycamores who have succumbed to the massive injury toll ISU has endured this season.
The ceremony itself was carried out in a steady drizzle, it seemed that even Mother Nature couldn’t cut the 1-10 Sycamores a break, but she knew all too well what tableau to provide.
For the injury-ravaged Sycamores, Saturday’s game comes to down to survival. Hyperbolic though that might seem, the sheer amount of players out have jeopardized units — running backs, quarterbacks and secondary in particular — to the point where there aren’t enough healthy players to properly call them “units”.
Running back Buck Logan and Austen Wozniak are the only healthy running backs. Quarterback Robert Tonyan is the only healthy quarterback, though Sanford said both Trent Lancaster and Mike Perish are game-time decisions. The secondary added cornerback Alex Stowers, but subtracted safety Donovan Layne, who suffered an ankle injury.
“We’ve had the attitude of no excuses and the next man up. I’m going to continue with that, but the issue has been whether we have a next man up. We’re very thin, but we’re going to go out and fight,” Sanford said.
What the Sycamores have going for them is a modest bit of momentum coming off their 21-14 loss to Western Illinois last Saturday. Pride might be the only thing at stake by now for ISU, but pride matters.
“It’s very important. It’s the last game I’ll ever play. We’ll give everything we have. We want to finish with a bang and finish with a win,” ISU senior wide receiver Tanner Riley said. “We had a lot of chemistry in that second half last week and it’s important to build off that.”
If Lancaster, who completed 8 of 15 passes for 93 yards last week against Western Illinois, can’t go, and if Tonyan can’t improve his performance, ISU’s offense is in a bind given its injury woes. Sanford promised that he has contingencies if further Sycamores get hurt, but declined to say what those were.
Southern Illinois comes into the game with a chance at a Football Championship Subdivision playoff bid in the expanded 24-team field. The Salukis (6-5, 4-3) have defeated South Dakota State, Northern Iowa and lost in overtime to No. 2 Eastern Illinois.
SIU has had injury problems of its own. It lost starting quarterback Kory Faulkner in October and 48-catch tight end MyCole Pruitt on Nov. 12, but the Salukis have maintained a balanced offense.
Defensively, SIU stops the run effectively and is vulnerable against the pass, though ISU has not tested pass defenses of late due to its own problems throwing the ball.
Sanford said he won’t overplay the idea that ISU can play spoiler to SIU. The seniors just want to end the season on a high note.
“It’s been a tough season. We came in with high expectations. Even though things haven’t gone as planned, these seniors have fought their butts off. We’ve never lost faith in developing as a team or getting better. We’re excited to play on Saturday,” Riley said.
One senior of note will not be honored today — running back Shakir Bell.
The team has not had Bell — who is second on ISU’s all-time rushing list with 4,214 yards and is ISU’s all-time leader in yards per carry at 6.2 — in its presence since Oct. 22. That was when the team maintained he was out for the season due to injury. Bell said at the time he was dismissed from the team.
Final game today for 14 seniors
TERRE HAUTE —
Indiana State’s football team had its last practice of the 2013 season Thursday and it had a jovial climax.
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