TERRE HAUTE — In the last seven days, Indiana State’s football team was trounced by 41 points by rival Illinois State. The embarrassing defeat led ISU coach Mike Sanford to question the effort of some of his Sycamores with the promise that changes would be made.
Then, on Tuesday, the career of running back Shakir Bell — the face of the program since his breakout 2011 season and one of ISU’s all-time best players — came to a bizarre end with two different versions of how he departed.
It’s been a turbulent week for the Sycamores, but there’s always another game to play. No doubt the Sycamores would like to put the tumult behind them and focus on beating their next opponent. Who’s next?
Oh … it’s No. 1-ranked and two-time defending FCS national champion North Dakota State.
No one said life in the Missouri Valley Football Conference was easy. The timing of NDSU’s visit to Memorial Stadium for today’s 3 p.m. kickoff is less than ideal.
But then, there’s never a good time to face the Bison. NDSU has won a MVFC-record 16 games in a row. It’s last defeat? A shocking 17-14 upset to the Sycamores on Oct. 13, 2012, at the Fargodome.
“They came into Fargo last year and beat us. We had a good football team. Our players are very aware of that. I came in at 5:10 a.m. the other day and I wasn’t the first guy in. We have a big task at hand,” NDSU coach Craig Bohl said.
A motivated NDSU team sends shivers down the spine, but the biggest question mark for any team facing the Bison, particularly for the offensively challenged Sycamores, is how to solve NDSU’s potent defense.
Familiar Bison standouts like defensive ends Cole Jirik and Kyle Emanuel, cornerback Marcus Williams, safety Colten Teagle and linebacker Trent Olson still dot the Bison roster. Given the talent on-hand, it stands to reason that NDSU ranks No. 1 in the country in total defense (257.9 yards), scoring defense (12.9 points) and rushing defense (75.7).
By contrast, ISU comes off a week in which it amassed just 174 total yards against an Illinois State defense that had been one of the lesser lights at the FCS level until last week.
“They’re a physical football team. Their defense is fast. They run to the football well. The thing we have to be able to do is play physical. We need to start fast. We didn’t start fast last week,” Sanford said.
The departure of Bell and the injured knee of starting quarterback Mike Perish make the task for ISU even more daunting. Perish sprained his knee at South Dakota on Oct. 12. He is doubtful for today’s game.
One ray of light from the darkness at Hancock Stadium last week was the play of running backs Buck Logan and Lemonte Booker. They combined to rush for 92 yards and accounted for more than half of ISU’s offensive output.
“We have to be a lot more physical than they are and not turn the ball over. The outcome can be good for us if we do those things,” Logan said.
Offensively, NDSU is a classic power team that depends on consistent quarterback play from Brock Jensen and the running of Sam Ojuri and John Crockett. Probably the biggest reason ISU won the game at NDSU a year ago was its ability to force Jensen into mistakes. Two interceptions thrown by Jensen were returned for ISU touchdowns by Johnny Towalid.
“I think our defense has the potential to do just as well. We need to be a team that reacts this week. We’ve had a chance to react to negative things that have happened, but we’re still a confident group. It’s awesome the No. 1 team is coming and we have a chance to do big things,” ISU defensive tackle Russell Jones said.
Preparation for the No. 1 team was supposed to be the focal point of the week for ISU, but Bell’s odd departure casts a long shadow. Despite Bell’s since-deleted tweets that suggested otherwise, the official word from ISU is that Bell was not dismissed from the team and that his career end is injury-based.
This remained ISU’s position as of Thursday even though Bell has not attended practice since and all but one mention of Bell was stricken from the team’s game notes, which had included a full-page dossier of Bell’s accomplishments. Bell remains on the team’s depth chart and roster.
When reached Friday, Bell declined to comment on his situation, but said he would comment at a later date.
Whatever the case, the attention Bell’s departure has received is a distraction the Sycamores had to deal with.
“I think initially there was some distraction about all of it. I think right now we’re trying to get past that,” Sanford said.