TERRE HAUTE —
A crowd of 5,291 at Memorial Stadium Saturday expected to see a showdown between No. 1 Football Subdivision Championship rusher Zach Zenner of South Dakota State and No. 2 rusher Shakir Bell of Indiana State.
The showdown didn’t materialize. What fans got instead was a wake-up call for the Sycamores that resonated on both sides of the ball.
The Jackrabbits’ defense overwhelmed the Sycamores and Zenner rushed for 237 yards as SDSU earned a convincing 24-10 win. The Sycamores lost their Missouri Valley Football Conference opener for the first time since 2009 and it was the first 0-1 MVFC start at home since 2008, Trent Miles’ first year at the helm.
“It’s a wake-up call. It makes you say, ‘It’s time to get going. We’re in the big boy league,’” Miles said.
SDSU’s defense — ranked 16th in the nation and 20th against the run — was as good as advertised. The Jackrabbits shut down Bell, who rushed for 54 yards on 18 carries. Bell’s longest carry of the day was just five yards.
“They did everything they showed they were going to do on film. They came in and punched us in the mouth,” said Bell, who was reduced to watching the game from the bench in the fourth quarter when ISU was forced into a passing set.
SDSU’s front four and linebackers pursued well and left no space — inside or out — for Bell to take advantage of.
“There wasn’t much there for him. They were moving the line of scrimmage back towards us. They took him out of the game. They won the battle of the physical play up front. It wasn’t him, he was fighting for every inch,” Miles said.
With Bell contained, SDSU’s defense trained its hungry eyes on ISU’s passing attack. ISU quarterback Mike Perish was under constant assault and the Jacks recorded eight sacks.
“Their defense was flying around. They took us out of our run game and took us out of our gameplan,” said Perish, who addressed the sacks. “Sometimes, we have mental breakdowns on the line, sometimes I held the ball too long. We’ll get it fixed.”
Perish completed 27 of 46 passes for 219 yards, but it was rough going. With Bell contained, play-action was taken away and ISU was forced into a one-dimensional passing attack especially once it was behind in the second half. ISU was also just 4 of 17 on third down conversions.
“We got after it. The d-linemen got after it. The linebackers too. We got chances to really get after them and we did,” said SDSU defensive end Marshall Peugh, who had two sacks.
ISU’s defense had a frustrating day. Of the 237 rushing yards that Zenner earned, 144 of them came on two carries — one a 57-yard touchdown run, the other an 87-yard run that set up the game-deciding touchdown. ISU forced SDSU into seven three-and-out series, but the Sycamores were also their own worst enemies with penalties.
Two penalties were costly on SDSU’s second scoring drive — a late hit by Zakee Bashir kept the Jacks alive after they failed to convert on third down and an encroachment penalty by Ben Obaseki on another failed third down conversion.
“It’s disappointing. Third down … we stop them and we’re off the field. Those penalties were crucial. We can’t have those kind of penalties,” ISU linebacker Jacolby Washington said.
SDSU led 3-0 at the end of the first quarter in a game that had all of the makings of a defensive stalemate. It stayed that way until late in the second quarter. With 2:47 to go in the half, Zenner ran off left tackle, cut right, and exploded into daylight for a 57-yard touchdown. ISU was able to get a 25-yard Tanner Fritschle field goal at the end of the half, but the Jacks led 10-3.
Perish was sacked three times in ISU’s first two series of the second half, but it remained a one-score game until the penalty-assisted SDSU scoring drive late in the third quarter. On play-action, SDSU quarterback Austin Sumner found tight end Seth Daughters for a 23-yard touchdown to make it 17-3.
ISU (2-2, 0-1) briefly had momentum after Lucas Hileman ran 12 yards on a fake punt. It seemed to awaken the Sycamores, who subsequently scored on a 2-yard touchdown by Bell to make it 17-10 entering the fourth period. ISU would drive to the SDSU 22 on its next drive, but failed to convert on 4th-and-1.
Zenner would have the last word. With SDSU (3-1, 1-0) pinned at its own 10, Zenner went up the middle, side-stepped an ISU defender, and burst into the open. He ran out of gas, but not until his 87-yard run set SDSU up at the ISU 3. One play later, tight end Cam Jones scored out of a Wildcat formation to make it 24-10.
ISU drove to the SDSU 2 late in the contest, but turned it over on downs after Perish was hit on a pass attempt. Michael Mardis got his hands on the jump ball, but couldn’t haul it in.
The loss was a bitter pill as ISU ended its three-game homestand. ISU will play three of its next four on the road. The Sycamores play at Southern Illinois next Saturday. The Salukis won at Missouri State 14-6 on Saturday.