News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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November 16, 2013

Sycamores' strong second-half effort not enough against Western Illinois

TERRE HAUTE — Indiana State’s football team got a couple of things Saturday afternoon that it hadn’t had in a while — offensive touchdowns and genuine, honest-to-goodness, scare-the-opponent-into-potentially-bad-decisions momentum.

What the Sycamores didn’t get was a victory.

With Trent Lancaster seemingly on his way to sparking a comeback for the ages for the Sycamores, the Western Illinois defense rose up for its only three sacks of the game in the final two minutes and held on for a 21-14 victory in Missouri Valley Football Conference play at Memorial Stadium.

“I’m heartbroken for our players,” coach Mike Sanford of the Sycamores said after the game. “I’d love to be able to say we came back, scored a touchdown at the end and won in overtime … I’m proud of our team; we fought, we competed … we took a positive step today.”

The encouraging latter part of Saturday’s game was a huge contrast to its first 24 minutes. Western Illinois mounted major drives on three of its first four possessions, getting two touchdowns and penalizing itself out of a chance for a third score. After the second touchdown run by bulldozing backup tailback Nikko Watson with 8:51 left in the second quarter, the score was 14-0 and ISU hadn’t yet achieved a first down on offense.

The Sycamores remedied the latter problem when Robert Tonyan Jr. completed a nine-yard pass to Miquel Johns moments later, and a penalty actually gave ISU a first-and-five situation with a chance to get something started.

Instead, the Sycamores committed their own penalty, an unsportsmanlike-conduct flag after the next play, and Tonyan quickly faced third-and-18. He rolled to his right, may have had a chance for running room, but elected to fire a long pass down the sideline. Western’s Martinez Davis got it instead and weaved his way across the field for a 32-yard scoring return and a three-touchdown margin for the visitors.

Then Lancaster entered the game. While his final statistics weren’t gaudy, the effect the former Northview quarterback had on the game was unmistakeable.

ISU didn’t threaten the remainder of the half, but at least picked up a pair of first downs. Western’s last two possessions of the second quarter ended with an interception by Mark Sewall and a punt — after linebacker Jameer Thurman couldn’t handle a pass off the hands of a Western receiver that could have been a pick-six for the Sycamores.

Another foolish penalty cost ISU its first second-half possession, but Lancaster drove the Sycamores to the WIU 20 on the next drive before a fourth-down pass was incomplete.

The Sycamore defense forced back-to-back three-and-outs, however, and after the second one a 10-yard punt — which was not the worst of the day for the Leathernecks in a gusting crosswind — gave ISU the ball at the Leathernecks’ 38.

“The way that Trent came in, slinging the ball around and running, really helped the defense a lot,” linebacker Connor Underwood said after the game.

“The offense feeds off the defense, and the defense feeds off the offense,” defensive tackle Russell Jones added.

Two runs by Buck Logan gave ISU one first down, a sweep by receiver Tanner Riley picked up another and a pass from Lancaster to A.J. Johnson helped set up a third. It took 10 plays to get to the end zone, but Logan found it on a 1-yard run with 2:18 left in the third quarter.

Western Illinois put the 250-pound Watson, the key to both its scoring drives, back into the game and the Leathernecks were inside ISU’s 10-yard line as the quarter ended. But then came a Western penalty, a pass broken up in the end zone by Alex Stowers and a tackle for loss by Jones on a short pass to Western’s starting tailback J.C. Baker.

That made it third-and-goal from the 21, and Western quarterback Trenton Norvell was strip-sacked by Underwood. Brady Collins picked up the ball and rambled 33 yards to the Western 34-yard line.

Lancaster kept ISU’s drive alive by completing a fourth-down pass to Riley, ran for a first down himself, then found Riley all alone in the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown pass with 10:22 left in the game. Eric Heidorn’s second extra point brought ISU within a touchdown, and the Sycamores’ leading rusher and receiver for the year each had his first touchdown.

“When we started scoring, that lifted the defense up,” Lancaster said later, “and they put us in great, great position.”

The visitors put themselves in a first-and-20 situation with a penalty on the first play after the kickoff, but worked the situation back to third-and-1 at their own 34 after Collins and Tyler Stafford stopped Watson on third down. The Leathernecks went for it on fourth-and-1, and this time Watson was successful.

“I think [the Leathernecks] were nervous about punting into the wind,” Sanford said after the game, “but frankly, I thought that was a slap in the face to our defense, which took it personally and rose up.”

Watson wedged his way for five yards on first down, but Sewall came flying up from the secondary to drop him at the line of scrimmage on second-and-5. A short pass set up fourth-and-2, and Sewall led the charge again, dumping Watson for a loss and giving the Sycamores the ball in Western territory.

“Mark Sewall played great,” Sanford said afterward. “We talked this week about belief. These guys had to believe we were going to win, and they did … [Sewall] really believed we were going to win, and he’s devastated right now.”

By the time ISU got the ball back, most of the sparse crowd was also believing. But linebacker Devon Butler intercepted a Lancaster pass to stop the Sycamore drive, and after ISU used its timeouts on defense to get the ball back, Kevin Kintzel led the pass rush that sacked Lancaster three times — with a 25-yard completion to Riley on third-and-22 keeping hopes alive temporarily — and forcing a fumble on the last of them.

“Trent Lancaster is a warrior. I’m very proud of him,” Sanford said later. “At the end of the game we carried him off the field, so I have no idea [how badly he’s injured]. He wasn’t perfect, but he competed hard.”

“Trent stepped up and was a great leader on the field,” said Riley, “and he took some shots.”

“First game back in three, three and a half years,” said Lancaster, who had both a greyshirt season and a redshirt season at ISU since his years at Northview. “It was good to be back and play with these great teammates I’ve been blessed with … we had a couple mistakes on offense, or I think we come out with a different result.”

n Walking wounded — Sanford emphasized injuries are no excuse, but praised several Sycamores who were also in the “warrior” class on Saturday. Offensive guard Adam Masters played the entire game with a high ankle sprain, he said, while Logan was the only running back available most of the game and Riley was forced to play “about five positions.”

Safety Donovan Layne also left the game Saturday with an ankle injury and was in a boot afterward, the coach said. Lancaster said in the postgame press conference that the ISU training staff would have him ready by next Saturday.

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