It was there for Indiana State’s football team. Victory over Indiana was within ISU’s grasp. The Sycamores had a chance to break the Hoosiers in the Rock.
But the Sycamores couldn’t quite swing the hammer.
The Sycamores came tantalizingly close, but the Hoosiers held off the Sycamores for a 24-17 victory Saturday at Memorial Stadium, a.k.a., The Rock.
How close was ISU? The Sycamores still had a chance on a Hail Mary attempt on the final play.
But it wasn’t to be.
“It hurts. It hurts deep. But we don’t have anything to hang our heads about. We have a lot of fight and lot of heart in our team. A little more execution and discipline and we’re going to go far,” ISU tight end Michael Mardis said.
The Hoosiers and IU’s fans got a look at supernatural Shakir Bell on Saturday. The junior rushed for 192 yards and a touchdown. He averaged 8 yards per carry.
“Shakir is Shakir. I’m not surprised anymore. The unfortunate thing is this is what’s expected out of him,” ISU coach Trent Miles said.
Quarterback Mike Perish completed 20 of 30 passes for 223 yards in his first ISU start. Perish had 137 passing yards in the second half and got better as the game progressed.
“He answered one of the questions I had about him …” Miles said. “… which was whether he could handle pressure situations. You can try to simulate in practice, but you can’t simulate what we had here. He handled it well.”
Perish was plagued by dropped balls, three in the fourth quarter alone. Drops by Demory Lawshe, Mardis and Taje High all proved costly. Wide receiver Donald Spencer also fumbled the ball away after a reception.
“It’s something we’ve been concerned about. It’s something we need to work on,” Miles said.
For all of the magic Bell and Perish conjured, they couldn’t help the Sycamores overcome crucial first half mistakes and a defense that couldn’t keep Indiana quarterback Tre Roberson in check in the first half.
After the teams traded punts on their opening drives, Bell showed the Hoosiers what he was all about. With the ball at the ISU 46, the Sycamores lined up with a trips right formation, with Bell alone in the backfield. Bell took the handoff from Perish — followed blocks by Evan Borchers, Paul Patrick and Nick Rice — and broke free.
IU’s safeties had been drawn away by the three wide receiver formation and Bell scored an easy 54-yard touchdown to put the Sycamores in front 7-0.
It took the Hoosiers just 53 seconds to muster a response. Roberson, who completed his first six passes, found Shane Wynn all alone on the right sideline on a busted coverage by ISU’s defensive backs. Wynn sped 71 yards to knot the score.
ISU then got into an unfortunate malaise that helped keep Hoosiers’ drives alive. Late in the first quarter, cornerback Calvin Burnett committed pass interference on a third-and-3 play that kept a Hoosiers’ drive alive. Later in the same drive, when ISU had forced IU to attempt a field goal, Burnett roughed IU kicker Mitch Ewald.
Though the play didn’t give IU a first down, it did give IU a chance to go for it on fourth-and-inches, which it converted. One play later, Stephen Houston scored from 15 yards out to put the Hoosiers in front 14-7.
On IU’s subsequent drive, Burnett made contact with IU receiver Nick Stoner on an incomplete pass into the end zone on third-and-3. The resulting first down kept yet another IU drive alive. Eight plays later, Ewald converted a 30-yard field goal to make it 17-7.
But ISU gave itself a lifeline before halftime. Runs of 17 and 25 yards by Bell got ISU to midfield with under a half-minute to play in the first half. Three straight sideline completions by Perish to Spencer and Mardis gave Tanner Fritschle the chance to boot a career-long 45-yard field goal.
Though ISU had been outgained by 90 yards at the break, the Sycamores only trailed by a touchdown at 17-10.
Bell rushed for 145 yards on just 14 carries at the break.
But the momentum ISU took into the halftime locker room appeared to be fleeting when the Hoosiers marched 75 yards on their first drive — including completions of 31 and 17 yards by Roberson, who capped the series off with a 1-yard plunge to make it 24-10.
But Perish had completed his last three passes going into the break and his hot hand carried over to the second half. Perish completed five consecutive passes and put ISU in a position where it had fourth-and-1 at the IU 23.
ISU elected to play-action fake to Bell and Perish lobbed a perfect pass to fullback Austen Wozniak. IU’s defense was set up to stop Bell and there were no Hoosiers to stop Wozniak from scoring a 23-yard touchdown. ISU trailed just 24-17 with 5:14 to go in the third quarter.
ISU had a chance to tie the game when Donald Spencer fumbled the ball away at the ISU 41. The Hoosiers didn’t capitalize, however, as an Ewald field-goal attempt hit the left upright.
ISU went three-and-out after missed field goal, but stopped IU at midfield as Hoosiers went for it and failed on fourth-and-5 from the ISU 45.
The Sycamores drove as deep as the IU 34, but a Brian Williams interception ended the Sycamores’ drive on fourth down.
ISU seemed to get the break it needed when Johnny Towalid intercepted a Roberson pass at the 20 with seven minutes left. But it was controversially ruled pass interference.
Still, ISU stopped the Hoosiers and Towalid came up big again as he blocked an Ewald field goal attempt with 4:51 left in the game.
ISU went to work. After dropping a pass while wide-open on second down, Michael Mardis hauled in a 27-yard screen pass to get the Sycamores in IU territory.
But the ISU drive ended in a red mist. After three plays netted minus-2 yards, Perish tried to find Mardis over the middle on fourth down. Though there appeared to be contact by ISU linebacker Chase Hoobler, there was no holding or pass interference called.
An incensed Miles was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct as he pleaded his case, but it was in vain.
“I got a technical and I’m not proud of it. That won’t happen again,” said Miles, who declined to comment on the pass interference calls.
ISU got one last chance as the clock ran out, but a Perish Hail Mary pass was swatted away.
“Being an Indiana guy. This hurts me deeply. A lot of our guys are hurting. But we just have to move on and learn from it,” Bell said.
ISU (0-1) plays host to Quincy College next Saturday.