TERRE HAUTE —
If it seems as if its almost been a year since Indiana State football coach Mike Sanford was hired to replace Trent Miles, that notion isn’t far off.
Today — nearly nine months after he was hired — Sanford will experience one of his last “first” milestones as the Sycamores’ boss, but it’s one of the most important ones.
ISU’s home faithful will finally get to see Sanford’s team play in person. ISU plays its home opener today against Division II Quincy. Kickoff is at 3 p.m. at Memorial Stadium.
Sanford has been through nearly every other hurdle a new coach has to negotiate — recruiting, spring ball, preseason practice and two grueling road games against Big Ten competition. Today’s game is more of an emotional experience, but Sanford is keen on not making the game about himself, but about ISU’s players.
“I am very excited to be playing at home. I think the whole thing is about the players. I wanted them to be fired up. I want them to be excited about playing. I want support out there for our players. That’s how I envision Saturday,” said Sanford, when asked what he expected from his first home crowd.
ISU still seeks its first victory of the season. The Sycamores bounced back last weekend at Purdue as ISU fell 20-14 one week after a 73-35 loss at Indiana.
But it still wasn’t a win. And obviously, that’s what Sanford wants against the Hawks.
“We played better against Purdue, but we didn’t win. One of the big things for us is we have to play better and be a mature enough team to improve and take our game up a notch regardless of who we’re playing,” Sanford said.
ISU’s offense and defense each had their marching orders as to what to improve upon during the week. For the offense, ISU’s third down conversation rate of 20 percent (6 of 30) stood out after two games.
“We focused a lot on that. We have to execute with 11 out of 11 guys, not 10 out of 11,” Perish said.
Sanford wants improvement on all downs. ISU’s opponents have a near-seven-minute advantage in time of possession so far. Part of the issue was a lack of a running game against the Boilermakers last week. ISU had just 39 yards on the ground.
“We have to be physical and run the football. We didn’t run it well enough against Purdue. We have to stay on the field. We have to be better on second and third downs,” Sanford said.
The ISU defense would like to force the issue against Quincy and be more aggressive in trying to create turnovers.
“We need more takeaways. We really haven’t forced enough fumbles. We want to get the ball out from running backs, receivers and the quarterback. We’d also like to get more interceptions,” ISU linebacker Connor Underwood said.
Much the same as the way ISU started, Quincy is playing its second consecutive week against FCS and Missouri Valley Football Conference competition. Quincy was beaten 34-6 at Western Illinois last Saturday.
Behind sophomore quarterback Nick Lonergan, the Hawks moved the ball in the air as he had 224 passing yards against the Leathernecks. However, WIU shut down Quincy’s running attack. The Hawks had just 39 rushing yards on 18 attempts.
After an infamous loss to Quincy in 2009’s home opener, ISU has controlled the series. ISU rushed for 237 yards last season in a 44-0 victory.
Today’s game is the last in a four-game series played over six seasons. Quincy is paid a guarantee of $35,000 plus a postgame meal.
As for what Sanford can expect? His players are hoping its an enthusiastic welcome.
“[The coaching staff] expects to see a lot of people out here. I hope a lot of people come out and support us as we’ve had in years’ past. I think [the coaches are] expecting a great atmosphere and they’re looking forward to it,” Underwood said.