COOKEVILLE, Tenn. —
Indiana State's football team fell short against Tennessee Tech in a 38-37 loss on Saturday.
The Sycamores fell short even though running back Shakir Bell ran for 201 yards and surpassed 4,000 yards in his career.
The Sycamores fell short even though defensive back Connor Underwood had three sacks.
The Sycamores fell short despite a second-half stretch where they outscored the Golden Eagles 25-7, including 18 unanswered points.
The Sycamores fell short despite a whopping 554-264 edge in total offense.
Why did the Sycamores fall short? Mistakes played a big part -- ISU quarterback Mike Perish had three interceptions, two led directly to scores and one ended the game. On special teams, a blocked extra point and two blocked field goals set ISU back, including a first quarter block that led directly to a Tech touchdown.
"The reality of it is we'd like to have certain plays back on all three sides of the ball," ISU coach Mike Sanford said. "There's nobody without blame."
ISU (1-3) also repeatedly failed to cash in their chips. Tech didn't.
The chips were most often left on the table in Tech territory. Ten ISU drives finished on the Golden Eagles' side of the field, but only four ended in touchdowns.
That put the onus on kicker Eric Heidorn, who was pressed into emergency duty when starting kicker Tanner Fritschle missed the game due to the death in his family.
Heidorn made three field goals, but the three blocks were tough to overcome.
"It wasn't [Heidorn]. We have to fix our protection. We had some issues with our field goal/PAT protection," Sanford said.
The loss meant Herculean efforts from Bell and Underwood went unrewarded.
Bell, who had just 34 rushing yards at halftime, broke like an uncoiled spring in the second half. The senior rushed for 167 yards after the break, including a 6-yard touchdown. Bell had six second-half runs of 10 yards or more.
"We fought, but we have to find the extra push," Bell said. "We wanted it so bad."
Bell's career rushing total is 4,108 yards. He is just 227 yards shy of Vincent Allen's all-time mark of 4,335 yards amassed from 1973-77.
Underwood was the point man in an ISU pass rush that sacked Tech quarterbacks five times. Underwood had 10 tackles overall. Including his sacks, he had four tackles for loss totaling 36 yards.
"We take three or four plays back or do a different thing, it's different," Underwood said. "We have to eliminate the X-plays, the big plays, that's what really hurt us."
Salt was poured on the wounds in the form of more defensive injuries. Safety Phil Wilson left the game in the first quarter and his right foot was in a boot after the game. Linebacker Jonathan Jackson and cornerback Alex Stowers were also injured late in the game. The extent of their injuries wasn't known.
ISU has had almost a non-stop litany of injuries on the defensive side this season. No one's looking for excuses, but the constant shuttle of bodies make continuity nearly impossible.
"It is what it is. Injuries happen all over the footbal field. You just have to deal with it," Underwood said.
The Sycamores sprinted out of the gate. Wilson intercepted Tech quarterback Darian Stone at the Tech 44. ISU cashed in seven plays later as Perish lobbed a screen pass to Bell on the right sideline. Bell shimmied his way through the Golden Eagles defense to score a 33-yard touchdown.
Ominously, the extra point was blocked, but ISU led 6-0 just three-and-a-half minutes into the game.
After the Golden Eagles halved ISU's lead with their own field goal, the Sycamores marched back downfield again. The Sycamores drove 73 yards to the Tech 4-yard line, but couldn't punch it in the end zone.
Heidorn attempted a 20-yard chip shot, but his kick was low and Tech defensive lineman Jordan Johnson rejected it with his right hand. James Huguely swooped up the loose ball and raced 87 yards for a devastating blocked field goal return. The Golden Eagles led 10-6.
"You can't win a football game with an extra point blocked and have a field goal blocked for a touchdown," Sanford said.
It got worse. Perish was intercepted by Bill Dillard in ISU territory, and four plays later, Tech's Bud Golden plunged in from a yard out to make it 17-6.
Despite moving the ball with some consistency, ISU could not catch its tail once it lost the lead. Twice, ISU had to settle for Heidorn field goals in Tech territory.
One of the failures to get in the end zone riled Sanford. On an attempted pass to Demory Lawshe inside the 5-yard line, Lawshe was leveled by Tech cornerback Demario Donnell. A flag was thrown on the play, but was picked up, and no penalty was called for crowning, which replay showed might have been appropriate. Lawshe suffered a concussion on the play and didn't return.
ISU will likely send tape of the hit to the Missouri Valley Football Conference office for review.
"Demory was concussed. I think that speaks for itself," said Sanford, who declined to comment further.
The Golden Eagles took a 24-12 halftime lead with 14 seconds left in the half when Golden's second effort on 4th-and-goal from the 1 crossed the goal line.
The second half was a different story and Bell's preeminence was evident from jump. He ran for 35 yards on a 51-yard scoring drive capped off by a Perish 1-yard run.
ISU couldn't completely exorcise its demons. Perish was intercepted at midfield on the next drive by Jimmy Laughlin, whose return took the Golden Eagles into ISU territory. Six plays later, Tech restored its 12-point lead with a Jared Davis 5-yard touchdown run to make it 31-19.
Still, ISU's offense wouldn't be denied. Bell scored a 6-yard touchdown with 5:16 left in the third quarter to make it 31-26. After ISU stopped the Golden Eagles at midfield, the Sycamores took the lead on a 12-yard Sampson Levingston touchdown catch with 1:12 left in the third quarter. A.J. Johnson's two-point conversion catch made it 34-31.
A 24-yard Heidorn field goal with 12:31 left extended ISU's lead to six, but Bell rued the series. He broke a 69-yard run on the first play of the series, but cut the wrong direction in the open field and was tackled at the Tech 24.
"There were too many times we didn't come up with points," Bell said. "When you get stopped in the red zone that many times it gets frustrating."
With 5:40 left, Heidorn's 40-yard attempt was blocked by Malcolm Mitchell, as ISU came up empty after it had bled more than five minutes off the clock.
Down six, the Golden Eagles had life. Davis, who had taken over at quarterback after Stone was injured in the first half, used a short-passing attack to devastating effect against the Sycamores. No more so than when he converted a 4th-and-2 pass with 3:12 left.
ISU came perilously close to stifling the Golden Eagles' threat when Eric Belew fell on Davis's fumble at the ISU 7. One play later, Tony Newman was called for pass interference on the goal line. One more play later, Zack Ziegler caught a 2-yard touchdown pass to put Tech in front 38-37.
Davis was brilliant as he completed 11 of 12 passes for 97 yards in relief duty.
ISU had the ball with 1:07 left and two timeouts. A 28-yard completion to Kyani Harris helped ISU get tantalizingly close to field goal range at the Tech 35.
But that's as far as ISU would get. Eventually forced into fourth down, Perish dodged the Tech pass rush, but was on the run and his tipped pass landed in the arms of Tech's Tevin McDermott to preserve Tech's victory.
"We should have won the game. We're a better football team than what the score was. That's all on us. The coaching has to be better. The offense has to be better. The defense has to be better. The special teams has to be better," Sanford said.
"You have to win a game like that. It's the bottom line," he added.
ISU opens MVFC play next Saturday as it plays host to Youngstown State. The Penguins got off to a 1-0 start in conference with a 28-27 victory at Southern Illinois on Saturday.