TERRE HAUTE —
In a defensive battle of wills, it seemed that the winner in No. 14 Indiana State’s battle royale with No. 17 Illinois State would be determined by which defense would finally blink.
The truth is that neither of the defenses ever batted an eye.
It took the talents of one special player to make the difference. Unfortunately for the Sycamores, that player happened to be in Illinois State’s white uniform on Saturday.
Illinois State wide receiver Tyrone Walker made the two biggest plays of the game on a third quarter scoring drive to give the Redbirds the cushion they needed to earn a hard-fought 17-10 victory in front of 6,008 at Memorial Stadium.
It was a cruel fate for an ISU defense that was mostly outstanding. Illinois State converted just 4 of 16 third and fourth down plays.
“We didn’t finish strong in the second half. It was 0-0 at halftime. If they don’t score, they don’t win. That’s our motto. We ended up letting them score. The outcome is that they won,” ISU linebacker Aaron Archie said.
ISU’s offense struggled against an equally on-point Illinois State defense. The Sycamores were a combined 3 of 18 on third and fourth downs and had two turnovers.
ISU running back Shakir Bell, who rushed for 115 yards, was frustrated that ISU’s defense was given the task of trying to hold the fort in what was a shutout until the final minute.
“We can’t put our defense in the position we put them in to win games. We have to score points,” Bell said.
Given that ISU’s defense was afforded no wiggle room, Walker’s plays loomed large in the final balance.
Deep into the third quarter, with the Redbirds up 3-0, Walker made a 34-yard catch to set Illinois State up at the ISU 14 – the first time either team had reached the red zone. Five plays later, Walker’s 4-yard touchdown catch gave Illinois State a 10-0 lead.
“Players make plays. That’s why we tried to recruit him out of high school,” ISU coach Trent Miles said.
The degree of difficulty on Walker’s two big catches was considerable given how well ISU (7-3, 5-2) had him defended on each of them.
On Walker’s 34-yard reception, the senior Illinois State receiver was shrouded over-the-top by ISU cornerback Johnny Towalid.
But Walker broke his pattern and curled on a perfectly-delivered back shoulder fade pass by quarterback Matt Brown. Walker created a smidgen of space to haul in a catch that gave the Redbirds the first bit of offensive momentum either team had.
“I adjusted to it because I felt it would have to be back shoulder for it to be completed at all because [Towalid] had perfect coverage,” Walker explained.
On the touchdown catch, Walker was similarly blanketed by ISU cornerback Calvin Burnett. But 5-11 Walker was just able to out-leap 5-9 Burnett for a Brown jump ball pass on the right side of the end zone.
“[Burnett] was in perfect position. I had to turn it into a basketball play. I put a box-out on it and caught the ball,” Walker said.
Miles acknowledged the plays Walker made, but also made the point that without those plays, the game could easily have turned the Sycamores’ way.
“I’m not down. I hate to lose more than anybody, but we understand that game could’ve gone either way. Unfortunately, it went their way,” Miles said.
It seemed neither team was destined to score as both defenses were impregnable in the first half. The Sycamores and Redbirds combined to convert just 3 of 17 on third and fourth down.
The Redbirds (8-2, 5-2) drew first blood on their second series of the second half as Nick Aussieker booted a 36-yard field goal at the 6:52 mark of the third quarter.
ISU very nearly took the advantage back on its next play as a deep Mike Perish pass intended for an open Demory Lawshe was just barely tipped by a Redbirds’ defender.
The Walker drive came next to put the Redbirds up 10. Bell was hurt on ISU’s next drive. He was upended by Illinois State linebacker Mike Zimmer after a four-yard gain and had to leave the game.
Bell continued to play on subsequent ISU series, but he shuttled between the ISU training room and to an exercise bike on the sideline to keep loose.
“A guy took a good angle on my leg and I had a thigh bruise. I was fine. It’s nothing that should’ve kept me out of the game longer than a play,” Bell said.
ISU’s chance to get back into the game was torpedoed by turnovers. A Ben Ericksen interception with 4:45 left stopped one ISU drive. Another interception by Shelby Harris at the ISU 19 – which came after Perish was hit in the backfield – sealed the Sycamores’ fate.
Two plays later, Darrelynn Dunn scored from three yards out to make it 17-0.
ISU scored on a 6-yard Perish-to-Mike Mardis touchdown with 31 seconds left. ISU then recovered the onside kick and gave itself a chance with 6 seconds left when Tanner Fritschle made a 33-yard field goal.
ISU recovered the ensuing onside kick, which would have given the Sycamores a Hail Mary shot to tie or win the game, but Burnett was offsides on the kick.
The loss broke ISU’s five-game winning streak. ISU also fell out of first-place in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. ISU has lost 12 consecutive home finales. ISU last won on Senior Day in 2000.
ISU has next week off. It will play at Youngstown State in a crucial game (see related story) on Nov. 17.