TERRE HAUTE —
Until recently, when it came to Washington, Ill.’s Underwood clan, ISU spelled out one thing and signified one color only.
Illinois State and its cardinal red.
However, Connor Underwood broke ranks. When recruited out of high school, he donned Indiana State blue.
The Sycamores are glad he did. The redshirt freshman has played his way into a key role in the Sycamores’ fifth-ranked Football Championship Subdivision defense.
No. 14 Indiana State’s home finale this Saturday against No. 17 Illinois State represents the first time Connor Underwood will face the Redbirds. Given how the Underwood family and the Redbirds are linked, it might be a surreal experience.
“We have a lot of family coming … I don’t know what side they’ll be rooting for,” Connor said.
It’s not hyperbole to state that Connor might not exist if not for Illinois State. His father, Scott, played football for the Redbirds from 1986-89. His mother, Donna, was a volleyball player at Illinois State from 1986-90.
It doesn’t stop there. Underwood’s brother, Colton, is a defensive end for the Redbirds … and a darn good one. The Redbirds’ Underwood, a junior, leads Illinois State with seven sacks and is second with 78 total tackles. Colton Underwood was recently added to the Buck Buchanan Award watch list.
Given the lineage, it would seem that Connor Underwood would’ve been on a one-way train to Normal once his own high school career concluded … so how did he end up in Terre Haute?
“When I came on my visit, I liked everything I saw. I saw exactly where this program was going. It was going in a really good direction. Eventually, we’ll be the top team in the conference. No one believed it, but I saw it. I love the people here and it’s nice to get away from home too,” Connor said.
The Underwood brothers are close. Connor said that he and Colton communicate nightly in some fashion. That communication won’t end this week — despite the fact that both teams are ranked, both are playing for their place in the Missouri Valley Football Conference pecking order and that both teams are acknowledged rivals.
Connor and Colton will still talk … just not about this Saturday’s game.
“We decided we’d talk about our own lives, but keep the football out of it,” Connor said. “Overall, it’s about who wins the game, it won’t be about either one of us individually. But there are bragging rights.”
Connor is following in his brother’s team-leading footsteps with the Sycamores this season as he’s been a revelation playing ISU’s hybrid linebacker-defensive end spot. Like Colton, Connor leads his team with six sacks — twice as many as any other Sycamore has amassed. Connor is sixth on ISU in total tackles with 37.
Though the brothers share many attributes — including an innate sense of the game — there are differences between them, ISU coach Trent Miles said.
“He’s tough, he’s athletic, he’s smart, and he loves the game of football,” said Miles on Connor. “His brother and he are different types of players. His brother is bigger, probably 255 or 260 pounds. Connor is more athletic. He can drop [into coverage]. He can rush.”
Though Connor showed his ability from the beginning of the season, he feels a lot more comfortable now in ISU’s scheme. He admitted that it’s a difficult defense to grow accustomed to the first time around.
“The hardest thing is to be able to think on the run. We’re constantly changing calls and each has a different responsibility. At the snap of a finger, you have to know what to do. It’s the hardest adjustment,” Connor said.
As for his decision to become a Sycamore, Connor said there’s no hard feelings on the part of his Redbirds’ family. There’s enough Underwood talent around to keep two different ISU defenses lively.
“Everyone supports me. There’s not too much teasing. My brother will tease me, but everybody in my family supports me. They’ll support me even though it’s Illinois State and they all went there,” Connor said.
• ISU charitable effort for Sandy — Miles’ wife, Bridget, initiated an effort to help victims of Hurricane Sandy. Along with Catholic Charities and the Red Cross, tickets for Saturday’s game can be acquired for free with a charitable donation.
“She said with the hurricane hitting, let’s talk to the Red Cross and see if we can get them involved and see if ISU was willing to let people in free if they brought a donation or a canned good and ISU went along with it,” Miles said.
According to ISU sports information, fans will receive a free ticket if they donate five pounds of food, or, if they make a monetary gift to the Red Cross. Donations can be made at the Hulman Center ticket office today, Thursday or Friday and at Thursday’s men’s basketball exhibition game and Friday’s women’s basketball exhibition game.
Donations also can be made on gameday at Memorial Stadium.
• Operation 10K — There has been a grassroots efforts undertaken to make sure there’s not a repeat of ISU’s poor attendance it suffered during last Saturday’s 45-14 victory over South Dakota
A grassroots Internet viral campaign done by the student support group The Forest made the Youtube, Facebook and Twitter rounds Tuesday. It trumpets Operation 10K — effort to get 10,000 fans to Memorial Stadium for Saturday’s key game.
ISU drew just 5,224 last Saturday.