TERRE HAUTE —
Trials by fire are called that for a reason. Indiana State quarterback Robert Tonyan Jr. found that out first hand last Saturday at South Dakota.
Thrust into the game late in the first quarter after starter Mike Perish suffered a sprained MCL in his right knee, the redshirt freshman had to face down the Coyotes’ fierce pass rush. It didn’t end well. Tonyan was sacked three times and completed 8 of 17 pass attempts for 34 yards, including an interception and a touchdown pass in ISU’s 17-14 loss.
With Perish doubtful this week with his knee injury, the upshot of last week’s Tonyan appearance is that he was able to get nearly a full game of experience under his belt before he makes his first career start today at Illinois State.
“It was a shock, but all those mistakes I made are changeable. Some were simple things like me missing my hot [reads]. We got better as a team this week and can’t wait to see what this week brings,” Tonyan said.
ISU coach Mike Sanford has expressed his desire from the spring camp onward that he wanted to give Tonyan plenty of snaps to prepare him for this contingency. Sanford admits he didn’t use Tonyan as much as he would’ve liked — Tonyan didn’t play at all at Purdue or Tennessee Tech — but the time Tonyan has had is beneficial.
“We had made it our aim to play him during the course of the season to get him experience. We knew at some point this day would come,” Sanford said.
:Looking back, I wish he would’ve played him [more],” Sanford said. “He’s played some and the experience last week was good for him.”
Sanford said the menu of plays used for Tonyan will change, but won’t be limited. When Sanford and offensive coordinator Brian Sheppard designed the playbook, they had several plays in it designed for Tonyan.
“He can’t try to do too much. He has to work within himself and do what he can do. He doesn’t need to win the game himself,” Sanford said. “We have enough offense in that take advantage of Mike Perish’s talents and one’s that take advantage of Rob Tonyan’s talents. We have to move towards the things that fit his skill-set.”
Tonyan’s mobility should help against an Illinois State defense that has notched 13 sacks so far this season. If the Redbirds’ rush can be avoided, Illinois State’s defense has proven to leak yardage.
The Redbirds, who rely on man-to-man coverage, rank 106th nationally in pass defense and 111th nationally in scoring defense. Every Missouri Valley Football Conference team has scored at least 21 against Illinois State this season and the Redbirds reached a nadir by giving up 59 at Youngstown State last week.
But for ISU to keep up its end statistically against the Redbirds, Tonyan has to maintain poise.
“It’s a pretty big deal to me. I’ve had a lot of preparation and film work. Sheppard, the receivers, the linemen, they’ve all been encouraging me,” Tonyan said. “I haven’t worked on anything specific, but Sheppard’s goal is to get me mentally prepared and that’s going to fall into place with my physical ability.”
ISU and Illinois State are rivals and the Sycamores are hungry after having lost 13 of the last 15 in the series. The game features two of the best defenders in the league and they happen to be brothers.
ISU defensive end Connor Underwood, a sophomore, and Illinois State defensive end Colton Underwood, a senior, will face off for the last time. The Underwood family has deep ties at Illinois State as their mother, Donna, played volleyball and their father, Scott, played football for the Redbirds.
Connor Underwood went through the family reunion aspects of the game last year, but it’ll be a bit different this time going back to Normal, Ill., where his family has such a strong association.
“You try to keep it as normal as possible, but it’s not normal. Playing against my brother is something special. Very few people get to do it and I’m going to cherish it, but I’m still going to play as hard as I possibly can,” Underwood said.
Connor Underwood has had the stronger statistical season. He has six sacks, easily the leader on the Sycamores, and his 0.83 sacks per game ranks fourth in the MVFC.
ISU’s defense contends with a green Illinois State offense. The Redbirds had planned to use Iowa State transfer Jared Barnett at quarterback this season, but he left the program after playing just three games. Freshman Blake Winkler has taken over and has been efficient with 968 passing yards and six touchdown passes.
Nearly all of Illinois State’s skill players are new this season after the Redbirds had significant loss from its 9-4 FCS playoff team of a year ago.
ISU hasn’t received much relief in the injury department. Right tackle Paul Patrick will return after missing last week’s game, but concussions will keep linebacker Kendall Walker and cornerback Alex Stowers out. In addition to Perish, defensive end Conrrad Nicholls will miss close to a month with a broken arm.