By Todd Golden
Springfield, Mo. — All right all of you armchair coaches, you Vince Lombardis of the XBox, you dominators of Madden football, time to stand up and be counted.
Create a successful game plan for the Indiana State offense. But before you confidently sit back and think you can do it better than the current ISU staff, keep the following factors, proven over the Sycamores’ 10 games, in mind:
• ISU’s offensive line has struggled throughout the season. There’s been incremental improvement from their September nadir, but the line is still not going to sustain an offense consistently, either via the run or the pass.
• Even if a passing game could be maintained blocking-wise, there isn’t a quarterback currently active on the roster who has proven he can consistently throw the ball. Roberts is a great runner and a leader, but a work in progress as a passer. Matt Seliger got a chance in the second half at Missouri State and threw the ball reasonably well, but he was helped off the field with a season-ending injury. Chris Stutzriem came in and led a short scoring drive, and though he also had his moments, he hasn’t been getting as many practice reps being third on the depth chart.
• Other than Roberts, whose instincts as an improvisational runner are considerable, ISU’s other regular rushers haven’t consistently been able to make much of the few opportunities they get. Antoine Brown is a between-the-tackles runner who needs holes or he gets stuck. Darrius Gates is an outside-the-tackles runner who needs some space to make things happen with a juke or a cut ... and space is rarely available.
Given all that, what plays do you call? What wrinkles can you add? What do you do to get the Sycamores out of constant field position jail?
It’s a quandary that has defined ISU’s season as far as the offense is concerned.
“It makes it tough. There’s not much success for any team when teams have to drive 80 yards every time they get the ball. You don’t get many points that way. We have to get turnovers to get good field position. And we don’t execute well enough and we’re not good enough to move the ball 80 or 90 yards on each possession,” ISU coach Trent Miles said.
ISU has done nearly everything it can based on the players it has available. ISU switched quarterbacks twice, and the grit of Roberts gave the Sycamores a jolt in midseason games against Illinois State and a win over Western Illinois. But since Roberts is limited as far as throwing the ball, it hasn’t taken Missouri Valley Football Conference coaching staffs long to figure out how to limit him.
Make him pass. Missouri State coach Terry Allen said as much after Saturday’s game.
“We wanted to force them to throw the football. They had one 32-yard pass. They moved the chains and possessed the ball, but they really weren’t much of a threat to score 28 points and beat us,” Allen said.
ISU did have its best passing yardage of the season with 192 yards, which was progress, but not enough to have a major impact on the game.
“We completed more passes this week [ISU’s three QBs were 18 of 34], but we have to find a way to put points on the board because our defense has been playing really well,” Roberts said.
ISU has played conservative at times to try and keep the clock running and limit chances for the opponent to make hay out of a short field — Missouri State’s longest touchdown scoring drive on Saturday was 52 yards. At other times, the Sycamores have tried to establish the pass to keep from being too predictable.
The inability to change field position creates, or can create, problems beyond the obvious. Frustration understandably sets in on the part of the offense when the ball isn’t being moved and confidence becomes a major issue.
For the most part, the ISU defense hasn’t shown any outward resentment towards constantly having to defend short fields, but obviously, that feeling can crop for any team. It would be hard not to.
“It’s kind of frustrating to work on the long end of the field all of the time, but it’s not any excuse. We have to drive the ball and put points on the board.” Roberts said.
Ironically, ISU had one of its better offensive statistical performances on Saturday with 308 total yards. However, 141 of those yards were gained when ISU was down by three touchdowns and with Missouri State’s second unit on the field.
“We didn’t win. I’d rather have bad offensive numbers and win rather than good offensive numbers and lose. We ran 75 plays, we should have 300 yards of offense, we should have more than that,” Miles said.
As Miles has repeatedly said, his building process means throwing kids into the fire until experience can be gained and depth can be built. The first two years of that process were basically guaranteed to be painful given the young players being thrown into the fire — the offensive woes are a part of that.
The current players are developing and will get better. But real help won’t come until another recruiting class — perhaps with an emphasis on junior college and Division I transfers — can come in and provide a lift.
Until then, ISU is going to have trouble breaking out of field position jail.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Terre Haute Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org