NORMAL, Ill. —
It’s been a glass half-full kind of season for the Indiana State football team, so it was easy — and exciting — to get caught up in looking ahead to scenarios that placed ISU in the FCS playoffs, even if ISU didn’t win out.
Entering Saturday’s game with Illinois State, the Sycamores had four games left and were 5-2. The tea leaves said a FCS playoff bid was still in the cards even if ISU lost one game in its final four.
And that may still hold true, but the Sycamores made it a lot harder on themselves after Saturday’s 17-14 loss to Illinois State.
The loss sullied the road map many observers — including myself — thought ISU could navigate to earn a FCS playoff bid.
The game many were worried in trying to project ISU’s path to the playoffs was its home game against North Dakota State on Nov. 5. The No. 3-ranked Bison are unbeaten in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, and ISU has never beaten NDSU.
But it was also thought that ISU could afford to lose to NDSU if it held serve against the rest of of its MVFC opponents. Three-loss teams regularly make the FCS field, especially now that the field has been expanded to 20 teams.
The fired-up Redbirds had other ideas at Hancock Stadium on Saturday. Not only did they avenge an embarrassing 59-24 loss to ISU last season, they took ISU’s playoff mulligan away.
Now the rosy glass half-full playoff scenarios immediately become half-empty angst. The NDSU game is now a must-win affair and so is every other game on ISU’s schedule.
And even if ISU runs the table, the loss to the Redbirds hurt. If the NCAA has to decide between the Redbirds and the Sycamores for a playoff bid — both have identical 5-3 records at present — Illinois State has the best argument of all to be picked over ISU with the head-to-head win.
A best case ISU playoff scenario could have even earned ISU a playoff bye had it won out, but that’s gone now. A home playoff game is probably remote, though hard to gauge given that the first round of the FCS playoff is a play-in round of sorts. A big turnout for the NDSU and Southern Illinois home games could sway some NCAA minds in that regard.
The loss basically eliminates ISU from MVFC championship contention, a reality that hit the Sycamores hard after the game, especially ISU’s veteran players who have built ISU’s program basically from scratch and wanted to see it through with a conference championship.
Two-loss ISU isn’t mathematically eliminated in the MVFC, but the Sycamores would have to win out, have Northern Iowa lose all of its remaining games, have NDSU lose to everyone but UNI, and also have Illinois State lose to SIU and Western Illinois to have a shot, and even then, ISU wouldn’t win likely win the FCS automatic bid qualifier.
Both ISU coach Trent Miles and the ISU players admitted that the focus now turns to playoff contention. Miles pleaded his case in the postgame press conference.
“Our goal has switched to making the playoffs. I think we have a great opportunity. We beat a Division I team on the road [Western Kentucky] and our only losses are to Penn State, Northern Iowa — who is No. 2 in the nation — and Illinois State, who I vote for every week in the top 20,” Miles said.
It was odd to hear ISU’s players — who have so totally bought into one-game-at-a-time — speak their feelings on validating their season by making the playoffs.
“That’s definitely the focus. The seniors want to get the chance to come out and play that extra game. We’re not satisfied with playing 11. We want that extra one in the playoffs. We need to win our next one to get that,” ISU safety Alex Sewall said.
The Sycamores can still do it. ISU’s defense played well enough Saturday and its performance would have earned a win against most foes.
ISU’s offense played its worst game since the opener against Penn State, but the Sycamores still had a chance to win anyway in the late going. In the final three contests, ISU’s offense can be counted on for more than what it showed against Illinois State. It will have to as ISU’s kicking game is broken at present.
ISU also has a bye week to get its many injured offensive players healthy.
But the margin for error is gone. No one wanted it to happen Saturday, but ISU’s playoff mulligan has been used up.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (812) 231-4272. Please follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.