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Indiana State University

November 9, 2013

ISU football team facing another tough mental challenge

TERRE HAUTE — Mike Sanford expects his football team’s mental toughness to be tested today when Indiana State plays at South Dakota State.

Not that it hasn’t been tested already.

“It’s a road game, it’s a tough environment,” the Sycamore coach said after Thursday’s practice. “They had three inches of snow [Wednesday], it’s supposed to rain there [on Friday], it’s going to be cold … we’ve got to be mentally tough.”

Considering that the Sycamores are 1-8 in a season they expected to be a good one and are still winless in Missouri Valley Football Conference games, not to mention almost a perfect storm of misfortune involving a coaching change and the subtraction of some key players … well, if the mental toughness tank was empty by now, it might not be all that surprising.

That doesn’t appear to be the case, however.

“We’ve had some pretty rough breaks,” sophomore linebacker Connor Underwood conceded this week, “and you don’t want to make excuses, but we’re having key injuries too. But you never want to look down on yourself and your team.”

“There’s no morgue here,” Sanford joked when an infrequent visitor remarked about how spirited the Thursday practice had been. “These guys are young and resilient.

“We’re playing a lot of young guys. They’ve got enthusiasm, and we’re doing everything we can to be positive, upbeat and take one week at a time.”

Ignore the 49-7 final score of last week’s game at Missouri State for a moment and you can see glimpses of a team getting closer to getting its mojo back.

“We competed early [at Springfield],” Sanford recalled. “It was scoreless at the quarter … we missed a field goal [in the second quarter] to go ahead 10-7, and it was 14-10 at the half.

“I expected us to come out, stop [the Bears] and score, but the third quarter [which included three interceptions returned for touchdowns by the home team] got away from us.”

The Jackrabbits are probably a better team than the Bears, thanks to a three-pronged offensive attack led by running back Zach Zenner, quarterback Austin Sumner and wide receiver Jason Schneider plus a defense that helps South Dakota State lead the MVFC in turnover margin — “That’s an area we’ve got to improve in,” Sanford quickly noted — but the Sycamores will go there ready to compete. And who knows, maybe it’s their turn to get some breaks.

“I go into every week expecting to win,” Underwood said. “I expect to win this week and the two weeks after that [against Western Illinois and Southern Illinois].”

“These kids have a desire to get better,” Sanford noted. “A lot of them are playing college football for the first time — some that we didn’t expect to be playing this early — and they’re improving and growing each week.”

And although several early-season goals are no longer possible, there’s a senior class wanting to go out on a good note and a group of underclassmen for whom the next few weeks are pretty important.

“This week and the next two are all about next year [for the younger players],” Underwood stressed. “How we finish will show what kind of team we are for next year.

“I also expect to win next year, and I’m looking forward to it still.”\

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