NORMAL, ILL. —
During Indiana State’s 1-5 start, there were losses where one play or a set of plays decided the game in the Sycamores’ opponents’ favor.
On Saturday at Illinois State, there was no need to go over each play with a fine-toothed comb to find out which one caused the Sycamores to lose 55-14 to the Redbirds.
It was nearly all of them, particularly in the first half.
Indiana State had been frustrated by its close-but-no-cigar losses, but Saturday’s matchup — which featured two Missouri Valley Football Conference teams that had played below expectations this season — was a meltdown.
The Redbirds (3-4, 2-2) got well. The Sycamores (1-6, 0-3) got rolled.
“I’m not going to call any teammates out, but we’re going to look for a change. We need to get back to playing Indiana State grind-it-out, hard-nosed football. Guys need to strap it up. I’m going to enforce that this week and so will other seniors,” ISU defensive tackle Russell Jones said.
Indiana State coach Mike Sanford said there were behind-the-scenes issues that contributed to the loss that he needed to take care of, but declined to specify what those issues are.
“With a score like that, it’s unacceptable. There’s a lot to this that I’ve got to look at. There’s some behind-the-scenes, underlying things I’ve got to evaluate as far as attitude and effort. Those are things I don’t want to address publicly,” Sanford said.
Some of the Sycamores spoken to after the game felt their effort wasn’t the problem. Others thought that perhaps the players needed to evaluate their commitment.
“I think some things aren’t getting across with some of the guys. I’ll lay my life on the line for these coaches. I play as hard as I can, but everyone needs to buy into that,” said Jones, who had eight tackles and a sack.
The on-field issues provided enough of a headache. Indiana State’s offense couldn’t move the ball via ground or air against a Redbirds defense that gave up 59 points to Youngstown State on Oct. 12.
The Indiana State defense had no answer for Illinois State’s offense either.
The numbers tell the tale. The Redbirds outgained the Sycamores 475-174 in total yards. The first-half numbers are even more stark. Indiana State was outgained 319-32. Sanford’s squad gained its 32 yards in 29 first-half plays.
With Indiana State starting quarterback Mike Perish out with a sprained MCL in his right knee, ISU turned to Robert Tonyan Jr. and the redshirt freshman struggled. Tonyan completed 8 of 22 passes for 69 yards.
“Illinois State brought it today. We were hesitant on offense and I take a lot of blame for that. The quarterback has to move you up and down the field and we didn’t move the ball,” Tonyan said.
Tonyan wasn’t helped by the fact that the offensive line couldn’t prevent near-constant pressure from the Redbirds. He was sacked seven times. Until the latter part of the game, when LeMonte Booker earned most of his team-high 54 yards, ISU couldn’t run the ball to take pressure off Tonyan or vice versa.
“They did a great job scheming us. They heated us up where they thought they could get us. They blitzed and we struggled picking it up. It was tough to pick up what they were bringing,” Indiana State center FN Lutz said.
Illinois State’s roll started innocently enough, but had ominous overtones. On its first series, the Redbirds gained all 64 of their yards on the ground, capped off by a Marshaun Coprich 1-yard touchdown run to make it 7-0.
The lack of Indiana State stopping power would not abate. The Redbirds took a 14-0 lead on a 19-yard reverse by Phil Dudley, then mistakes reared their head. Tonyan fumbled with 4:45 left in the first quarter on the Indiana State 12-yard line. Illinois State quarterback Blake Winkler wasted no time as he threw a 12-yard fade to Cameron Meredith to make it 21-0.
Indiana State’s offense provided no relief. After it gained a first down on its opening series, it didn’t gain another until the second quarter.
“They have playmakers at nearly every position on offense. We did a good job of studying film and containing them,” said Illinois State defensive end Colton Underwood, who joined his brother Connor, an ISU defensive end, and his father Scott, a former Illinois State player, for the pregame coin toss.
By the time Indiana State did get a first down, Illinois State had blown the game open. A Nick Aussieker field goal and a 50-yard touchdown catch by Anthony Warrum made it 31-0. A 4-yard Coprich touchdown run staked the Redbirds to a 38-0 halftime advantage.
“We made a lot of mental mistakes. There were things coaches were trying to correct on the sideline. You want more passion out of your defense. That’s something we have to find. We had a lack of passion,” Jones said.
If it seemed the Sycamores had hit bottom, they still hadn’t. On the opening kickoff of the second half, Illinois State’s Josh Burch easily sliced through the Sycamores’ kick coverage unit for a 100-yard return to make it 45-0.
A 5-yard Tonyan touchdown run with 1:15 left in the third quarter and a 4-yard Booker TD run in the fourth quarter at least prevented Indiana State from being shutout, but it was still a sobering day for the Sycamores.
Sanford was asked what he saw in the Sycamores’ eyes as the rout played out.
“I think we have varying degrees. I think we have some extremely committed guys. I think we have some guys who are in-between and we have some guys who aren’t very committed. That’s my job to figure who those people are,” Sanford said.
“They’ve either got to change or we move on without them. This program is going to move forward. We’re not going to accept this and we’re not going to accept anything less than great attitude, great effort and great work ethic.”
There’s no respite in the MVFC for the Sycamores. Two-time defending national champion and still No. 1-ranked North Dakota State — a 31-10 winner against Southern Illinois on Saturday — visits Memorial Stadium next week. Indiana State stunned the No. 1 Bison with a 17-14 upset victory in Fargo, N.D., last year.