TERRE HAUTE —
How chronic has Indiana State’s football injury problem been this season?
An entire 22-man team could be formed from the players who have missed at least one game or were hurt in a game and had to leave it. So far, 25 Sycamores fit that description.
Considering that a Football Championship Subdivision roster has just 63 scholarships available, that’s a whopping injury hit for a team to take.
Injuries aren’t the sole reason ISU is 1-4 and has its FCS playoff hopes on life support as it travels to South Dakota today, but they sure haven’t helped the Sycamores’ cause.
Just taking into account starting players, the injury list is staggering. When safety Larry King went down with a season-ending knee injury in the first practice in August the injury cascade never stopped.
“It’s rough. We’ll miss guys physically. We’ll miss leadership. It all started when Larry King went down and it just spiraled. But you can’t focus on all of the negatives,” said ISU running back Shakir Bell, who has missed two games and parts of two others with shoulder and toe injuries.
In addition to Bell, starters or projected starters that missed time include cornerback Calvin Burnett (lost for the season), tight end Jamar Brown (lost for the season), wide receiver Chris O’Leary, wide receiver A.J. Johnson, cornerback Alex Stowers, safety Donovan Layne, linebacker Kendall Walker, linebacker T.J. Tuuu, linebacker Jordan Jackson, safety Mark Sewall, safety Phil Wilson, running back George Cheeseborough and defensive tackle Tyler Boyd.
Wide receivers Demory Lawshe and Tanner Riley also were knocked out of games in the first half.
There is no end in sight to ISU’s misery. Walker and Stowers did not pass concussion tests this week and will miss today’s game. As will Lonnell Brown Jr., who’s been an effective passing-down rusher.
Another name could be added to the list as starting right tackle Paul Patrick injured his ankle Wednesday. He was in a boot during Thursday’s practice and ISU coach Mike Sanford said he was a game-time decision to play today.
Football teams try to endure when injuries hit. Nearly every team circles the wagons and brushes off the notion that chronic injuries offer an excuse. The Sycamores are no different.
“We have a no excuses, next-man-up mentality. One of our deals from the beginning has been that if someone goes down, you be the guy that’s prepared. So when everybody looks over and sees who’s in they say, ’Good’ and don’t say, ’Uh-oh.’ We put a premium on everyone preparing,” Sanford said.
But at some point, the mere accumulation of injuries reaches critical mass, and while the brave face is put on, reality hits that no matter how defiant a team tries when adversity comes, the mental drain of trying to do less with more grinds on any team.
“It takes a toll on us emotionally. It’s hard to just go out and grind everyday and keep losing more and more players. As a young team, we need to realize that people have to step up and fill those positions,” said Layne, who missed two games with an ankle injury suffered at Indiana on Aug. 29.
The mass of injuries has a cascading effect on the entire team. If a defensive back is hurt — every starting ISU defensive back has been at some point — that trickles down to the special teams.
Sanford said the injury problem has become so acute that he and his staff haven’t been able to put together a travel squad until the Thursday before games. Most of the time, that determination is made early in the week.
“A lot of our plans for a lot of things are affected — special teams, offense and defense — but even who’s just going to play has been week-to-week. There’s the depth chart. Who’s one? Who’s two? Every day, every week we have to figure that out,” Sanford said.
The coaches and players have no choice but to carry on. ”Next man in” might very well be a cliché, but it’s one that the Sycamores have to believe in. Circumstance leaves no other options and no room for gloom or sentiment.
“I don’t know how it affects the players. We don’t really discuss that or worry about that. It’s the reality, so we’re dealing with it. Day-to-day, week-to-week,” Sanford said.
Bell, who had to leave last week’s game against Youngstown State with a toe injury in the first quarter and is himself questionable for today’s game, said the team can’t dwell on the lengthy injured list.
“Our heart is extended to the guys who are hurt. We can’t focus on that. We have seven games to play. We still want to win the conference. We still want to win the playoffs,” said Bell, who is a game-time decision, according to Sanford, but who insisted he will play.