VERMILLION, S.D. —
It was a play that not only symbolized Indiana State’s 17-14 loss at South Dakota on Saturday, but perhaps the Sycamores’ entire season.
Down three with 6:39 left in the fourth quarter, ISU faced third-and-9 from its own 39. ISU ran Shakir Bell to the left and the senior standout had daylight.
Then the unthinkable happened. Bell lost his footing and fell down without having been touched ... eight yards into a run that needed to gain at least nine.
An apoplectic Bell got up, twirled around in fury, and stomped away his frustration on the DakotaDome field turf.
How could that go play go wrong? How could the entire season go wrong?
“That play is going to haunt me for a while. Maybe its a touchdown if we do everything right. It’s stuff like that. Plays that need to be made,” Bell said.
That play was like many this season. It’s as if the Sycamores have angered the football gods and they’ve used divine intervention to not only stifle that play, but scuttle all of the hopes ISU had going into the campaign.
Only there’s nothing divine about it. ISU is finding ways to lose.
As one might imagine, the mood in the ISU locker room was somber. Almost to a man, the Sycamores I talked to pointed the finger at themselves for Saturday’s loss and a lost season.
It was their fault, not the team’s fault. This was especially true for Bell.
“I’ll be the first to say I take responsibility for this game. There were too many situations out there — even if [the media] didn’t see it, or the coaches didn’t see it — I saw it and knew I was supposed to make a play and didn’t make it,” Bell said.
Bell was asked how he could internalize the loss that way when there were plenty of reasons on both sides of the ball ISU fell short.
“I put a lot of that on me because I know the caliber of player I can be and I haven’t lived up to that this whole season. It’s going to hurt. It hurts really bad right now. We’re a 1-5 football team. Regardless of whether anyone wants to take the blame, it’s my fault,” he responded.
The self-flaggellation went on. Even redshirt freshman Robert Tonyan Jr., thrust into action when Mike Perish got hurt in the first half, was ready to fall on his sword.
“It’s rough right now. The seniors in the locker room? This is their opportunity. I have three years, but this is their last ride. If the offense is going to rely on me, I have to do it for them, “ said Tonyan who had a shiner on left eye and a bloody scrape on his left arm after close encounters with the physical Coyotes’ defense. “Coach said I have take this as a learning experience, but I take it more to heart.”
The frustration the Sycamores feel is understandable. The injuries the Sycamores have suffered have been massive. The players, much less ISU fans, barely know the starting 11, especially on the defensive side, from week to week.
But even apart from that, ISU isn’t linking together good plays and execution. There will be an isolated forced three-and-out, a few key conversions made on the offensive side, but never to the point where ISU builds it into any kind of rhythm.
And rhythm is important, because with it comes confidence, something the 1-5 start has sapped away from the Sycamores.
“It’s not that we’re not making plays, we are at times, but its hard for us to get things rolling. Then once [the opponent] gets rolling, it’s hard to stop. The offense can’t sustain drives and the defense can’t stop the run. We’re making plays, but not enough to get points on the board. It’s very frustrating,” ISU safety Donovan Layne said.
It should also be noted that not all of ISU’s issues are injury-related. ISU’s defensive line, which had its season-opening starting four until Conrrad Nicholls went down late in the game, was pushed around by USD’s offensive line. ISU’s offensive line — which has stayed mostly healthy — has been hit-and-miss. ISU continues to be a 50/50 proposition from one play to the next offensively.
“We had a lot of opportunities to win the game. We made a lot of mistakes in critical situations we can’t make. We have to be more disciplined. I said it last week and its an ongoing issue,” ISU coach Mike Sanford said.
The players know it all too well. They’re in shock. No one expected a 1-5 start and now ISU has another problem. Not only does ISU have to fix the execution issues that got it to 1-5, but the Sycamores have to fix themselves too.
The Sycamores are in a funk and have to get their minds right. Self-doubt, while understandable given the circumstances, is ultimately a dead end. Until the Sycamores overcome that doubt, it’ll be hard to fix the execution.
It’s a vicious cycle. The Sycamores have six more games to figure it out. It won’t be easy, but if it’s on them to take the blame for it, it’s on them to fix it too.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 208-2643 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.