TERRE HAUTE —
If there was a message that Indiana State football coach Trent Miles wanted to convey in the wake of ISU’s 17-10 home loss to Illinois State, it could be summed up in one word.
Everything is still OK. The Sycamores still have this. There’s no reason for panic.
ISU battled Illinois State chipped tooth-and-bloody nail in a well-played defensive stalemate at Memorial Stadium. Ultimately, the Redbirds made a few more timely offensive plays than the Sycamores could muster.
The 8-2 Redbirds, unbeaten on the road in 2012, are almost certainly Football Subdivision Championship playoff-bound and will play North Dakota State on Nov. 17 in what could be a Missouri Valley Football Conference championship showdown.
Hard-fought though the loss was, it would seem that it might be time for ISU fans to get anxious. After all, an opportunity fell by the wayside for the 7-3 Sycamores.
An ISU win would have surely assured ISU of a playoff berth and put ISU in an excellent position to earn at least a share of the MVFC championship.
Now, ISU’s MVFC fate is no longer in its hands and its playoff fate is laced with uncertainty.
Uncertainty? Forget it. Miles sees through the haze. He feels ISU’s fate is relatively simple.
“You will see [Illinois State] in the playoffs and you’ll see us in if we win our next game,” Miles said. “Destiny is still in our hands when it comes to the playoffs. We win and we’ll get in.”
Miles unflappable tenor in the wake of ISU’s loss is not without reason. With a few twists of fate the other way, the Sycamores could easily have won. Certainly, ISU’s defense did their part with the exception of one Tyrone Walker-influenced 65-yard third-quarter scoring drive.
ISU is still alive in the MVFC title chase, though a late rally by South Dakota State in a 16-12 victory at Southern Illinois made it more difficult for the Sycamores.
After Saturday’s action, ISU is tied with Illinois State in third place in the MVFC at 5-2. The Sycamores and Redbirds are a half-game behind SDSU and NDSU, both at 5-1.
The Jackrabbits and Bison play each other next Saturday at the Fargodome. The winner has the inside track on the conference championship. ISU and Illinois State are both idle next week.
On Nov. 17, when ISU is playing at Youngstown State, Illinois State will play host to NDSU. SDSU plays host to state rival South Dakota.
The best path to a shared title would be if NDSU beat SDSU next Saturday. Then, on Nov. 17, if ISU beat the Penguins and Illinois State defeated NDSU, there would be a three-way or four-way tie for the MVFC championship, depending on how the Jackrabbits fared against the last-place Coyotes.
“This is a crazy world. If things fall the way they could fall, after watching [Illinois State], there could easily be three or four teams at 6-2 at the end of the year. That’s what I’m trying to get to,” Miles said.
ISU’s playoff fate is murkier. On merit, the Sycamores deserve the playoffs. ISU has one of the best defenses in the country and the Sycamores are the only team in the span of the last calendar year to beat NDSU … at their place, no less.
ISU was also fifth in last week’s Gridiron Power Index, an important component for determining at-large bids for the FCS playoffs. ISU’s GPI will slip a little after the loss to Illinois State, but not dramatically so. The Redbirds were 13th entering the week.
Playoff ambiguity rests on teams in other conferences. While ISU is 7-3 and has a better resume than it ever has, parity has been in short supply in the other FCS conferences. The playoff waiting room is still elbow-to-elbow with two-loss teams from the FCS power conferences.
As of this writing, the Big Sky Conference has four teams with two losses or less. The Colonial Athletic Association and MVFC have three. The Southern and Southland Conferences have two apiece.
Some of these teams will lose again before the playoff pairings are announced on Nov. 18, but not all of them. There are only 10 at-large berths available. Someone deserving is going to be left holding the playoff bag.
But Miles has no desire to project that kind of analytical ambivalence on to his team. He wants them to believe its simple win-and-in proposition. It’s the right play for him to make. The more confidence he infuses into the Sycamores, the better off they’ll be.
“We might tie for the conference championship. If not, the worst I think we’re playing for is a playoff spot. Our back is against the wall. We’ve got no margin for error,” Miles said.
Back against the wall or not, while you wait two weeks for ISU’s next game … Miles wants you to relax. Team belief has been one of ISU’s best attributes all season. There’s no reason to stop that train now.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or email@example.com. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.