News From Terre Haute, Indiana

October 20, 2012

Sycamores eager to avoid late-season malaise

Todd Golden
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Indiana State’s football team is a week removed from beating No. 1, but it’s a year removed from another set of numbers that is far more germane to them and to the Sycamores’ 2012 fate.

The number is a win-loss record: 2-6.

That’s ISU’s record in the final four games of the last two seasons. In each, ISU gave itself a chance to be in the Football Championship Subdivision playoff hunt in the final weeks of the season, only to see the playoffs slip away with a late-season fade.

“We were at this point of the season [in 2010 and 2011] and ended up 6-5. It’s time to learn from the last two years of mistakes. We put ourselves in position, but we faltered,” ISU coach Trent Miles said.

Those fades were also clearly on the minds of the Sycamore veterans as they prepared this week to play at Western Illinois. ISU is 5-2 and 3-1 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.

The Sycamores are ranked 21st in the national media poll, but more importantly, are 11th in the Gridiron Power Index, a measure used to determine at-large bids for the 20-team FCS Tournament field.

If everything goes right for ISU, the at-large bid might not be necessary. ISU is still very much in the hunt for the MVFC’s automatic bid if it wins the conference. ISU is currently tied for second place, a game behind South Dakota State.

At the very least, a victory would clinch ISU’s third consecutive winning season, something the Sycamores haven’t done since 1969. (ISU had three straight non-losing seasons from 1979-81, but were .500 in 1981.)

All of the best-case scenarios for ISU’s season are still very much in play, but no one wanted to forget the past missed opportunities that cost them in 2010 and 2011.

“Over the last two years ending the way we did? We’ve thought about it a lot. Even last year, we thought about it. To go out last season and not doing it again? It fueled our fire. We want to secure our playoff spot,” Obaseki said.

Obaseki had a monster game against Western Illinois in a 46-24 victory last season at Memorial Stadium. Obaseki had 22 tackles and 2 sacks as the Leathernecks elected not to double-team him.

“I’m expecting double teams. I’ve had it all season and I’m prepared for it. I just go out, play my game and make as many plays as I can make,” Obaseki said.

WIU (3-3, 1-2) has struggled offensively as only four FCS teams have averaged less than WIU’s 266 total yards per game. The Leathernecks have traditionally been a running team and this year’s edition is no different as Nikko Watson (78 yards per game) and Caulton Ray (59.33) carry the load.

WIU has been marginally better since Wil Lunt became the starting quarterback at the beginning of the month. WIU had 348 total yards in an Oct. 6 win at South Dakota. WIU’s defense starts seven underclassmen. Redshirt freshman J.J. Raffelson has stood out as he leads WIU with 54 tackles.

ISU’s passing game will have a different look as Tanner Riley replaces Donald Spencer in the starting lineup. Spencer broke his foot last week at North Dakota State and will miss six-to-eight weeks. Without Spencer, ISU loses its best downfield threat, but Riley is confident that it won’t effect the Sycamores.

“Donald is obviously a big asset to this team, but it’s next man in,” Riley said. “Obviously Donald’s a big guy, but we have some big bodies to step in. I don’t think it changes the way we approach [the passing game] at all.”

Chris O’Leary and Taje High could also see more snaps when ISU uses more than two receivers.

ISU has exorcised some of its ghosts this season — it beat Southern Illinois for the first time since 2002 and it knocked off North Dakota State for the first time since the series began in 2008. ISU hasn’t won at Western Illinois since 1996. Placed in the context of ISU’s late-season fades of 2010 and 2011, it’s another bit of motivation for ISU to remain focused.

“We were ready to beat Northern Iowa [in 2010] or North Dakota State [in 2011]. We’re more experienced and we’ve been able to get over some humps. We’ve learned to win on the road [ISU has won two straight road games]. We know what it takes. It’s all about us, it’s not about anything else,” Miles said.