TERRE HAUTE —
If you like your stakes high, there’s no better place to be than Memorial Stadium on Saturday as No. 14 Indiana State and No. 17 Illinois State face off at 2 p.m. today in ISU’s home finale.
What’s on the line? No less than Football Subdivision playoff contention, and possibly, the Missouri Valley Football Conference championship.
A win by either team would likely cement their FCS playoff status. A win by the Sycamores would put them in good stead to have a shot at the MVFC title.
It might be one of the biggest home finales ISU has ever had. And home finales have not been kind to the Sycamores, even in their best seasons.
ISU has lost its home finale in the previous two seasons — to Southern Illinois (in 2011) and Northern Iowa (in 2010). Both losses were costly as ISU finished 6-5 in both seasons and missed the playoffs. In 1995’s finale, ISU played host to Eastern Illinois and had an outside chance at a playoff bid, but the No. 12 Panthers defeated the Sycamores 27-6 and ISU finished 7-4.
Even in 1983 and 1984 — ISU’s finest seasons in the FCS/Division I-AA era — the Sycamores lost their regular-season home finales in both years.
Today’s game offers a stern test for the Sycamores. Illinois State (7-2, 4-2) is easily the best team ISU has played since its 17-14 victory over No. 1 North Dakota State on Oct. 13. History is also no comfort here either as ISU has never beaten a ranked when the Sycamores were ranked themselves.
But the Sycamores have done plenty of good in their own right during their five-game win streak. One of them is avoidance of turnovers. ISU’s offense has been responsible for three giveaways in that span.
“We’ve taken care of the football. We have to take care of it and not create turnovers. If we take care of the ball and get some turnovers, we’ve got a good chance in the fourth quarter,” Miles said.
Offensively, ISU (7-2, 5-1) has not seen the kind of passing game the Redbirds bring to the table since its nonconference matchup with Drake in September. Four-year starter Matt Brown has thrown for 2,285 yards and 18 touchdowns.
“He’s the best quarterback in the conference right now. He’s big — about 6-foot-3, 230 pounds. He throws it well and they’re huge up front,” ISU coach Trent Miles said.
Brown throws to the most threatening receiver group ISU has seen this season. Tyrone Walker (58 catches, 792 yards, 5 TD) is the MVFC’s leader in receptions and receiving yards per game.
He’s joined by Donovan Harden (35 catches, 501 yards, 5 TD) and Lechein Neblett (34 catches, 452 yards, 4 TD).
“They spread it around really well. It’ll be a challenge for us because recently we’ve seen more run-oriented teams. Now we’ll have to go out, rush the passer and be able to be in coverage,” Miles said.
ISU cornerbacks Calvin Burnett and Johnny Towalid have received rave reviews on their pass coverage throughout October, but will face their biggest challenge today. It’s a challenge ISU’s corners accept. The chance to finally face a passing team is relished.
“They have a very good quarterback and they have solid receivers. We’re going to stick with what we’ve been doing. We’ve been playing good defense. We love it when the ball is in the air. It gives us a chance to show our abilities,” Burnett said.
“Me and Calvin are like a mirror-image of each other. I know if something happens my way, something good will happen. If it goes Calvin’s way, he can handle it,” Towalid said.
Illinois State can run the ball too. Darrelynn Dunn has rushed for 714 yards and 11 touchdowns.
ISU will go into battle without nickel safety Mark Sewall. The redshirt freshman tore the ACL in his right knee and will miss the remainder of the season.
The Redbirds’ defense is no slouch either. Illinois State is ranked 10th nationally in total defense. The Redbirds are eighth in pass efficiency and 19th in rushing defense. It’s the best run defense ISU running back Shakir Bell (1,306 rushing yards, 11 TD) since the matchup with NDSU.
Defensive end Colton Underwood — older brother of ISU’s Connor Underwood — is the MVFC leader in sacks per game (0.94) and tackles for loss per game (1.83). Defensive linemen Shelby Harris and Nate Palmer are standouts, as is linebacker Evan Frierson and free safety Ben Ericksen.
“Their defensive front is outstanding and so are their linebackers. They’re just talented all the way around,” Miles said.
Perhaps forgotten with all of the season implications on the line is that it’s Senior Day. Fourteen seniors will play their last regular season home game. Included are the last members of Miles’ first recruiting class, including standout linebacker Aaron Archie.
“It’s been a long, hard road. I’ve been here since coach Miles was here. Senior Day is unbelievable, but I’m not worried about it. I’m worried about my team,” Archie said.
Miles wouldn’t want it any other way.
“Every game’s a big deal, not just because it’s Senior Day. We’ll honor our seniors after the game, not before it,” Miles said.