MACOMB, Ill. —
The Missouri Valley Football Conference is running out of teams that have the answer when it comes to the suffocating riddle that is the Indiana State defense.
Western Illinois was certainly dumbfounded in its attempt on Saturday.
The Sycamores’ defense dominated the Leathernecks and No. 21 ISU defeated WIU 23-7 at Hanson Field Saturday night.
"Like always, we just believe in the coaches' scheme. As long as we focused on what we going to do, we know it's going to work. Every play worked for us today," said ISU linebacker Aaron Archie, who led the Sycamores with 11 tackles.
The triumph lifted ISU (6-2, 4-1) into a two-way tie for first place in the MVFC. South Dakota State, the lone leader entering Saturday’s action, lost 27-6 at Northern Iowa. Joining the Sycamores in the MVFC penthouse is Southern Illinois (38-21 winners at Youngstown State).
It was also ISU’s first victory at WIU since 1996, breaking a seven-game losing streak in Macomb. ISU also clinched its third consecutive winning season, the first time since 1969 that the Sycamore program has pulled it off.
It was a strange victory, highlighted in part by a pair of key muffed punts by both teams, but ISU’s defensive dominance defined the game.
ISU limited WIU (3-4, 1-3) to 144 total yards of offense. WIU was 1 of 15 on third down conversions and completed just 4 of 19 passes for 25 yards. WIU punted 12 times, although ISU’s trouble fielding Leathernecks’ kicks made WIU’s punts dangerous for ISU on multiple occasions.
"We played very well tonight. It's because we have great players, but it's also because everyone does their job, play-in, play-out. [Defensive coordinator Jesse] Minter puts us in the right situations and guys are just flying to the ball," ISU safety Mark Sewall said.
The smashmouth nature of the game was true on the other side of the ball as well. ISU’s offense had few breakthroughs against WIU’s defense. ISU finished with 254 total yards, punted seven times and was 2 of 12 on third down conversions.
Despite ISU's offensive struggles, Shakir Bell did rush for 123 yards and a touchdown.
"It wasn't a great offensive performance, but we did what we could to get the win. Anytime you get the win, you don't want to talk too much about the bad side, but there's a lot of things we did out there that's fixable," Bell said.
WIU got the early breaks. Sewall blocked a punt on the Leathernecks’ first possession, but WIU punter Pat Smith grabbed the ball out of mid-air and ran for a 27-yard gain. It would prove to be WIU’s longest run from scrimmage in the game.
"If you take that play away, and a fake punt at the end, we held them to just over 100 yards of offense. I thought [the defense] played extremely well. These are the games we expect now," ISU coach Trent Miles said.
On WIU’s second drive, ISU safety Larry King intercepted Wil Lunt at midfield. King returned the ball to the WIU 7, but fumbled it away. WIU recovered at its own 1.
ISU got it together on its third series. Richie Dyer capped a 55-yard, seven-play drive with a 14-yard touchdown run on an end around to the right side. It was Dyer’s first career touchdown. ISU led 6-0.
ISU maintained its slim lead for most of the rest of the first half as both the ISU and WIU defenses held firm.
The Sycamores broke through again with 3:22 left in the second quarter thanks to Shakir Bell’s elusiveness. Bell took a sweep to the right. The junior dodged one defender on the right sideline, stutter-stepped another, cut left and broke for daylight.
"I got tough on myself during the game. I got mad. I stopped answering everybody and focused on my assignment. I play better when I'm mad," Bell said. "I just had a to be really patient on that run, because I wanted to cut sooner, but I waited for my guys, got the blocks and made the cut."
The 46-yard touchdown run was Bell’s longest run from scrimmage since he had a 48-yard run in a Sept. 15 game against Drake. ISU led 13-0, a lead it would maintain at halftime.
The defensive hegemony continued into the second half, but ISU’s seemingly comfortable position was disturbed midway through the third quarter. ISU’s George Cheeseborough muffed a WIU punt at the ISU 13. The ball trickled into the end zone and WIU’s David McDaniel fell on it for a touchdown. Suddenly, the punchless Leathernecks had cut ISU’s deficit to 13-7.
Earlier in the game, Tanner Riley had muffed a punt which had cost ISU the ball.
ISU’s lead hung by a delicate balance into the fourth quarter until a special teams miscue bit the Leathernecks with 11:03 left in the contest.
On a play almost identical to ISU’s muffed punt, WIU’s Antoine Ford allowed the ball to bounce off of him and into the ISU end zone. Sewall fell on it for a Sycamore touchdown. ISU led 20-7 on a muffed punt tit-for-tat.
"Those plays change games. The ball came my way and I just hustled for it. Fortunately, I got it in the end zone," Sewall said.
ISU’s defense would keep WIU at bay the rest of the way. ISU added a 42-yard field goal by Tanner Fritschle late in the fourth quarter to round out the scoring.
"Of course [the defense] has confidence, but we have to keep our poise too. We can't get a big head, we have to stay level-headed. I believe in the man next to me. I believe in our lineman, our corners and our linebackers. I believe we have the best defense in the conference," Archie said.
ISU suffered one potentially significant injury as Riley went down with a shoulder injury in the second half. He will be evaluated on Sunday. ISU's wide receiver depth is already compromised as starter Donald Spencer is out six-to-eight weeks with a broken foot.
ISU begins a two-game homestand next Saturday as it hosts South Dakota.
INDIANA ST. 23, W. ILLINOIS 7
Indiana St. 6 7 0 10 — 23
W. Illinois 0 0 7 0 — 7
InSt—Dyer 14 run (kick failed), 3:59.
InSt—Bell 46 run (Fritschle kick), 3:22.
WIll—McDaniel recovered fumble in end zone (Smith kick), 8:07.
InSt—Sewall recovered fumble in end zone (Fritschle kick), 11:03.
InSt—FG Fritschle 42, 3:58.
First downs 16 5
Rushes-yards 45-151 34-119
Passing 99 25
Comp-Att-Int 12-18-0 4-19-2
Return Yards 41 (-6)
Punts-Avg. 7-45.7 12-35.0
Fumbles-Lost 3-3 1-1
Penalties-Yards 4-30 5-58
Time of Possession 35:00 25:00
RUSHING—Indiana St., Bell 28-123, Cheeseborough 9-18, Dyer 1-14, Wozniak 3-14, Team 2-(minus 4), Perish 2-(minus 14). W. Illinois, C.Ray 16-72, Smith 2-36, Watson 12-33, Lunt 4-(minus 22).
PASSING—Indiana St., Perish 12-18-0-99. W. Illinois, Lunt 4-19-2-25.
RECEIVING—Indiana St., Wozniak 3-17, Lawshe 2-33, Mardis 2-20, O’Leary 2-9, Bell 2-4, Riley 1-16. W. Illinois, Chestnut 2-11, Morgan 1-11, Keating 1-3.