TERRE HAUTE —
In the last two seasons, six has been the pits for the Indiana State football team.
But seven? It just might prove to be ISU’s ticket to Football Championship Subdivision playoff heaven.
ISU earned its seventh win of the season with a definitive 45-14 victory over South Dakota on Saturday at Memorial Stadium. It was ISU’s fifth consecutive victory, its best win streak since 1995.
In the previous two seasons, ISU had to sit and watch as its 6-5 mark wasn’t deemed good enough to qualify for the FCS playoff field. Now at 7-2 on the season, the seven-win mark is significant hurdle the Sycamores have cleared to solidify their playoff hopes.
“I was here in ’09 when we were 1-10. To get seven wins, not a lot of people believed we could get here. We’re here. We’ll never forget where we came from, but we always have our minds set on bigger goals. We don’t want to stop. We don’t want to be 7-4,” ISU linebacker Jacolby Washington said.
Though ISU has six Division I wins at present (one of its seven wins was against Division II Quincy), ISU is ranked in the top 10 of the Gridiron Power Index, the football version of the RPI that’s used as a guide to determine the FCS field.
Most important, ISU is in a good position to win the Missouri Valley Football Conference championship. Combined with Southern Illinois’ loss at North Dakota State, ISU now has first place to itself in the MVFC by a half-game over NDSU and South Dakota State. The Sycamores, Bison and Jackrabbits are tied in the loss column.
Playoffs are a distinct possibility … not that anyone wants to spike that football just yet.
“Our work isn’t done. We’re taking it by steps. South Dakota was step one. We’re proud to be where we’re at. We should be 7-2. We feel we’re better than 7-2. We’re still going to play with a chip on our shoulder,” said ISU running back Shakir Bell, who had 150 rushing yards, two rushing touchdowns and one receiving touchdown.
The Sycamores (7-2, 5-1) beat the Coyotes with perhaps their best start on both sides of the ball as they’ve had all season. ISU scored on their opening drive. Bell capped a 13-play, 77-yard drive with a two-yard touchdown run to make it 7-0.
Washington become the latest defensive player to cross over and help ISU out in its goal line offense as Bell’s lead blocker on the touchdown.
“Blocking is cool with me. It reminded me of my old days in high school playing fullback. I wish I could get the ball,” Washington said.
Quarterback Mike Perish was also in rhythm on the opening drive. All three of his completed passes for first down gains.
“Our whole offense played well on that drive. Shakir made some plays and is making people miss. He got us into some short third downs and that always helps,” Perish said.
ISU’s defense would tilt field position in the Sycamores’ favor throughout the first half. USD had just three first downs in the first 30 minutes.
ISU took advantage as it had to march just 43 yards on its second series that was capped off by a 6-yard Perish-to-Michael Mardis touchdown connection to make it 14-0.
USD’s inability to get out of the shadow of its own end zone haunted it again late in the first quarter. Stuck at the USD 14, Coyotes quarterback Josh Vander Maten overthrew his intended receiver. His errant pass fell into the waiting arms of ISU cornerback Johnny Towalid.
Towalid had an easy 25-yard path down USD’s sideline into the end zone to put ISU up 21-0. It was Towalid’s third interception return for a touchdown this season, a new single-season record.
“They ran double slants and I just happened to read the quarterback. It wasn’t a good throw, it was high, it came right to me. I saw the end zone and went for it,” Towalid said.
The Sycamores would continue to pour it on. Bell scored again – this time on a 3-yard plunge up the gut -- with 8:20 left in the first half to make it 28-0, an advantage ISU would maintain at halftime.
“We got out early on them. Our kids were sharp in what they were trying to execute,” ISU coach Trent Miles said. “We were 8 of 13 on third conversions. That’s a lot better than we’ve been and its been an area of concern for us.”
USD (1-7, 0-5) scored on its first drive of the second half – via a 5-yard Jasper Sanders run to make it 28-7 – but ISU would not let the Coyotes get any hope.
A Tanner Fritschle field goal, a 25-yard Perish-to-Bell TD pass and another interception return for a touchdown – this time a 52-yarder by Donovan Layne ensured that USD would be on the wrong end of a rout.
“I take my hat off to [the ISU] coaching staff. Four years ago, this program was underwater and sinking. I remember talking to [Miles] on the phone. He was looking high and low for players. He’s found them,” USD coach Joe Glenn said.
Injury-wise, ISU safety Mark Sewall suffered a sprained knee. Miles was confident that Sewall’s injury wasn’t serious.
ISU plays its final regular season home game of the season next Saturday as rival Illinois State visits.