Cedar Falls, Iowa —
Indiana State's football team is getting tired of being graded on the curve of its own past futility.
The No. 17 Sycamores feel like they've arrived … and they grow weary of continually having to prove it to those who remain skeptical of their success.
I agree. So given that standard, what I'm about to write is going to sound like criticism even though, in the big picture, it should actually be construed as a compliment given where ISU has come from.
In the wake of its 23-9 loss to No. 2 Northern Iowa at the UNI-Dome, the Sycamores should not feel like they could have won.
They should have won.
Seven points were left on the field via missed kicks alone. The offense was inside the UNI 30-yard line six times and got a grand total of nine points. There were three turnovers.
Given that ISU's defense played with more aplomb than it has since the win at Western Kentucky on Sept. 17, ISU had ample opportunities to beat the Panthers on their home field.
They should have won. Bottom line And no one in a very disappointed ISU locker room would disagree.
“I felt like we let one slip away. Not to take anything away from [UNI]. We were fighting, we just couldn't make the big plays when we needed to,” ISU fullback Brock Lough said.
“Everyone left their heart out there. I was so emotional after the game because we came together at halftime and wanted to come back and take the lead. It didn't happen. The ball didn't bounce our way and we didn't execute,” ISU quarterback Ronnie Fouch said.
“The more you put in, the more it hurts. We worked hard to get up to the level we're at now, among the top programs. It just didn't swing our way this time,” ISU tight end Michael Mardis said.
Up until Saturday's game, perception about ISU — especially around the rest of the league – was that they were a great rise-from-the-ashes story, but they were a team that was going to get exposed when it battled the big boys of the MVFC.
The boys don't get much bigger than No. 2 UNI, especially on its homefield, especially in front of the 3rd-largest crowd in UNI-Dome history.
But ISU more than held their own. They pushed the Panthers around at times. UNI's potent offense looked stagnant and befuddled at other times. ISU's defense was the first to keep UNI from scoring a touchdown in the red zone all season.
And before Shakir Bell had to leave the game due to an unfortunate concussion late in the second quarter, there was justified concern in the UNI-Dome that is was going to be the Sycamores' day. Bell had 145 yards on 14 carries. More video game-like stats from the sensational soph.
But lack of execution took it all away.
“It hurts to know we were so close to a team that's so good. Take nothing away from them, they deserve what they got. It hurts right now, but we can't let it linger,” ISU defensive tackle Rod Hardy said.
ISU crossed one its last rubicons on the way to stabilizing itself as a winning program today. The standard is no longer, “how did they do against the league's elite?”
As ISU marches towards a possible Football Championship Series playoff berth and a still-possible shot at the Missouri Valley Football Conference championship, the standard will now and forever be … “did they win?”
That speaks volumes about the warp-speed progress ISU has made since 2009. Lest anyone forget, two years ago on this date, ISU was still the nation's worst team.
“If I slapped one of them on the back and said, 'Good job competing', they'd look at me like I was crazy. That's a given in our program. It's not something we have to talk about. We have the talent to compete with anybody. I'm not worried about competing anymore,” ISU coach Trent Miles said.
He's right. Moral victories are done. They're history. It's time to worry about winning.
What a great worry that is to have. It wasn't long ago that the worry was whether there would be football at ISU at all.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at email@example.com or at (812) 231-4272. Please read his blog at http://blogs.tribstar.com/downinthevalley and check out his Twitter feed @TribStarTodd.