WEST LAFAYETTE —
In the span of a week, Indiana State’s football went from no chance to no surrender.
After the Sycamores were humbled 73-35 at Indiana on Aug. 29, ISU hoped it would take a big leap forward and at least improve against the Boilermakers.
The Sycamores did more than that. ISU had the ball in Purdue territory with under a minute to play down by six, but an interception by Purdue’s Ricardo Allen snuffed out ISU’s upset bid as Purdue held on for a 20-14 victory.
The Boilermakers held on with bloody fingernails as the Sycamores kept coming at them in the second half. Down 17-0 with 4:43 left in the third quarter, ISU put together two scoring drives and were oh so close to a pivotal third scoring drive that would have turned the game the Sycamores’ way.
ISU’s improvement was dramatic. One game after Indiana gained 632 yards of total offense against ISU’s defense, Purdue managed just 284.
“Our defense has a chance to be really special. The improvement from week one to week two was great,” ISU coach Mike Sanford said.
ISU offense outgained Purdue by 11 yards and rode the coattails of a career performance by quarterback Mike Perish. The junior completed 29 of 45 passes for 256 yards and two touchdowns.
The offensive production was compiled without the services of All-America running back Shakir Bell. ISU said before the game that Bell — who suffered a shoulder injury against Indiana — would likely play, but Sanford elected not to use the senior.
“He was very close to playing in the game. He wanted to play, but we made a decision to hold him out. He’s a much better player when he’s at his best,” Sanford said.
Tight end Jamar Brown also left the game after the second series with a knee sprain. His absence ratcheted up the degree of difficulty for the offense one more notch.
“It’s a positive for our offense [to perform despite missing some key players]. When we get Shakir back, we’ll have endless possibilities,” Perish said.
On the opening kickoff, it seemed the bad vibes from Bloomington still lingered. Purdue’s B.J. Knauf fielded it at the 2-yard line, drew ISU’s pursuit to the left side, and then handed off to Akeem Hunt, who took off to the right side. ISU’s defenders were over-committed and Hunt raced the remaining 90 yards for a touchdown. Fourteen seconds into the game ISU was down 7-0.
No one could have known it at the time, but it was the high point of the game for the Boilers.
The kick return was all ISU would concede in the opening 15 minutes as ISU’s defense improved drastically from its showing against Indiana. ISU’s Russell Jones stuffed Purdue’s Hunt on a fourth-down attempt from the ISU 41 and it was the first bit of evidence that this was a different ISU team, but it certainly wasn’t the last.
ISU’s defense found another level on Purdue’s first series of the second quarter. The Boilers pushed ISU into the shadow of their own goalpost with a 1st-and-goal at the 1.
The Sycamores held strong. Kendal Walker, Calvin Burnett and Connor Underwood each had a hand in two goal-line sticks on Purdue running back Dalyn Dawkins. Pressure by Underwood forced Purdue quarterback Rob Henry into an incomplete pass on third-and-goal. ISU forced Purdue to settle for an 18-yard field goal to make it 10-0.
“You love that test,” said Jones on goal-line stands. “You know they’re coming at you, especially when you have two smaller defensive tackles inside. We did a good job.”
It’s a test ISU would face again, and once again, the Sycamores would pass with flying colors.
ISU’s defense would stuff Purdue twice more in the first half before the Boilers got the ball again for the last series of the half. A 25-yard run by Hunt set Purdue up at the ISU 1 with a minute left in the half.
Another goal-line stand? Could it happen? Believe it.
Underwood stuffed Hunt on first down, Purdue quarterback Rob Henry was held out of the end zone by ISU’s defensive line on second down, and Hunt met the full force of Underwood on third down.
Purdue had used all of its timeouts and a rushed field goal attempt resulted in a penalty that resulted in time running out on the Boilers, and more importantly for ISU, no points for Purdue before the half.
“Those goal-line stands really got us going. With no points off the one at the end of the first half? That was huge. Up front, we had a really good push and our linebackers hit the holes really well,” Underwood said.
To that point in the game, Purdue’s defense had controlled the line of scrimmage and prevented ISU from gaining any traction offensively. That would change.
ISU emphasized short, quick passes out of the pocket by Perish with a bevy of curl routes and throws to the sideline. It helped the junior get into a solid rhythm.
“Coach Sanford did a great job with adjustments. Our receivers did a great job with routes. Our offensive line protected better. It helped getting those shorter routes out and got rid of their pressure,” Perish said.
It didn’t show on the scoreboard right away, and when Purdue took a 17-0 lead on a 16-yard Knauf run with 4:43 left, it seemed that ISU’s offensive improvement would be an interesting sidelight to a respectable loss.
Instead, ISU’s offense continued to build momentum. A turning point came on fourth-and-9 from the Purdue 36 with 2:44 left in the third quarter.
Sanford elected to go for it and ISU isolated running back George Cheeseborough on a sideline route. Cheeseborough fought off contact from the Purdue defender, hauled in a nicely placed pass and strolled into the end zone. ISU trailed 17-7 and had hope.
ISU’s defense bent but didn’t break again to start the fourth quarter as Purdue settled for a field goal.
Again, the ISU response was swift. A 31-yard Perish-to-Tanner Riley connection set up a 17-yard Perish-to-Demory Lawshe touchdown with 9:22 left. ISU trailed 20-14 and momentum was on its side.
ISU never relinquished the momentum, but could never quite get over the top either. One drive petered out at midfield, but with 2:48 left punter Jordon Stangler executed a perfect coffin-corner punt that pinned Purdue at its own 2.
The Boilermakers failed to escape the shadow of their own goal post and ISU got the ball back at the Purdue 41 with 46 seconds left. On the second play from scrimmage, with the clock running and with no timeouts, Perish tried to find Lawshe on the right side. Allen read Perish perfectly and jumped in front of Lawshe for the game-sealing interception.
“He made a great break on the ball. I left it inside and he made a big play,” Perish said.
ISU (0-2) plays its home opener against Quincy next Saturday.