TERRE HAUTE —
Indiana State football coach Mike Sanford said that the Sycamores’ just-concluded 1-11 season was a learning experience for everyone.
They hope it’s a lesson ISU won’t have to repeat in the future.
Sanford vowed that ISU’s struggles this season are a temporary situation that will be rectified.
“I learned a lot during the season. The players learned a lot and I learned a lot. There’s a lot of things I’m going to do differently and a lot of things I’m going to change and improve on. We will not be in this position again,” Sanford said.
What did Sanford learn? He didn’t have the time to explain it all.
“It would be ‘War and Peace’ if I went through it. I’ve been coaching for a long time. The great thing about this profession is that you always learn and you can always better. I need to get better, our coaching staff has to get better, our players need to get better,” Sanford said.
ISU center FN Lutz, whose career came to an end after Saturday’s 31-9 loss to Southern Illinois, hasn’t lost faith in the coaching staff.
“I’m excited to see what’s to come. Coach Sanford and the staff are great guys and when they say they’re going to be in the playoffs and in the national championship, they’ll get it done,” Lutz said.
ISU couldn’t catch its tail in some early close losses. Injuries had already taken a toll, particularly in the secondary, but ISU’s players had not yet adjusted to Sanford’s new offensive and defensive systems.
By mid-season, the injuries had piled up to the point where the Sycamores weren’t competitive at all. The steep drop coincided with a decline in ISU’s offense.
The loss of quarterback Mike Perish for two weeks mortally wounded the passing game — and he struggled in his return. Redshirt freshman Robert Tonyan Jr. struggled mightily. He completed just 34.3 percent of his passes for an average of 31.6 yards per game. The Oct. 22 dismissal of running back Shakir Bell left ISU short on running backs. The offensive line struggled all season long to protect passers and get consistent push up front. The result was predictable ... ISU ranked 114th in FCS in total offense, averaging 290 yards per game.
ISU’s defense struggled early — ISU only allowed fewer than 20 points to a Division I foe once through six games — but came into its own late in the year despite injuries. ISU finished with a respectable 44th place rank in FCS total defense.
“I have great pride and excitement about the defense going into next year because of how we ended the season,” Sanford said. “We kind of ran out of guys on offense and we’re not going to allow that to happen.”
Injuries completely morphed the season out of recognition. Of the 22 players who started against Indiana on Aug. 29, 12 missed at least one game due to injury. Several others were injured and played through them. No unit was left untouched.
Bad luck played a role — starting cornerback Calvin Burnett was lost for the year when he leaped at an opposing quarterback and landed awkwardly — but Sanford wants to see what can be done on his part to avoid another injury epidemic.
“Sometimes injuries just happen, but sometimes there’s things you can do to eliminate them and look at all of them,” Sanford said.
Sanford was quick to note that he doesn’t want to use injuries as an excuse to wash away the bad taste of a 1-11 season.
“I’m not going to be the victim in this deal. I’m not going to be the excuse-maker and act like the victim. The facts are the facts, but we’ve got to find solutions and answers moving forward,” Sanford said.
There are bright spots to build around. Defensive end Connor Underwood had an All-America-level season with nine sacks and 78 tackles. Freshman linebacker Jameer Thurman was outstanding as he led the team with 91 tackles. Safety Mark Sewall shook off early injury problems and played well late. Terre Haute native Tsali Lough ensured no dropoff when Sewall and Donovan Layne were hurt at safety.
Running back Buck Logan led the team with 609 rushing yards, a solid total given that ISU foes were stacking the box given the lack of a passing game.
Players injured early in the season — such as tight end Jamar Brown and safety Phil Wilson — also played well before injuries took their toll.
Sanford wants to focus on building around those players. Sanford doesn’t feel the 1-11 campaign will hurt recruiting. Running back Deionte Buckley and quarterback Patrick Coyne — both one-time Cincinnati Bearcats — are Sycamore-bound. Coyne played as a fullback at Cincinnati, but was recruited out of high school as a quarterback.
“I’m excited going into the future. We’re already recruiting, we’ve been recruiting hard. We’re going to have a great recruiting year. I don’t care about the record,” Sanford said.
Sanford also said he’s focused on the on-field product. ISU’s crowd totals dropped precipitously by November — natural given it was a one-win season — but disconcerting nonetheless.
“My deal right now is about players more than anything. I see great hope and great things ahead. To me, it’s all about the players,” Sanford said.
Sanford remains optimistic, even in the wake of ISU’s worst season since 2009.
“We’re going to win. There’s no way I’ve lost my vision for this program, which is to win a championship. It’s hard to say that from the ashes, fire and rubble that’s burning right now, but I believe that. I believe we’ll come out of it stronger than we were before,” Sanford said.