TERRE HAUTE —
Murphy’s Law was enforced with extreme prejudice against Indiana State’s football team at Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
Whatever could go wrong for ISU in the Homecoming contest against Youngstown State did. Nothing was spared.
ISU’s offense and defense broke at the worst times ... even the Memorial Stadium elevator broke. Mother Nature heaped on her own brand of misery with thunderstorms that caused the game to be delayed twice for a total of 80 minutes.
The interruption merely prolonged the Sycamores’ torment. Youngstown State defeated ISU 35-24 in the Sycamores’ Missouri Valley Football Conference opener.
“In any game, especially in a defeat, there’s things you can learn. We have to learn from this. We said after last week, we had to get better at the little things, but it wasn’t good enough,” ISU coach Mike Sanford said.
ISU (1-4, 0-1) lost its fourth game in five tries and still doesn’t have a Division I victory this season.
ISU’s offense moved the ball at times, but hurt itself with turnovers and didn’t execute in key situations. ISU failed to score inside the 20 three times in the first half and it didn’t help matters when running back Shakir Bell limped out of action after ISU’s second series.
According to Sanford, Bell suffered a toe injury and had a leg bruise. Wide receiver Tanner Riley was also injured. Sanford wasn’t sure of the extent of Riley’s injury.
The loss of Bell meant ISU had to rely on its passing attack, but quarterback Mike Perish was not consistently accurate. The junior completed 30 of 56 attempts for 392 yards and three touchdowns, but had several misses downfield.
“We outgained them [ISU had a 478-360 edge in total offense], but turnover margin is more important than yards gained,” Perish said.
ISU had two turnovers, but one was a pick-six interception and the other stopped an ISU drive deep in Penguins’ territory.
ISU’s defense didn’t have consistent stopping power. Penguins running backs Martin Ruiz and Jody Webb averaged 6.4 yards per carry. Ruiz scored three touchdowns.
“We gave up big plays that got us down quick,” ISU defensive end Connor Underwood. “We have to have gap discipline. People have to know their responsibility and play it the right way.”
It didn’t help that ISU’s already-depleted defense lost more personnel. Cornerback Alex Stowers and Kendall Walker both suffered concussions last week. ISU thought both might play, but neither of them were able to.
“We’re a beat-up football team,” Sanford said. “We have to get some guys healthy. We have to get some guys back.”
It could have been different for the Sycamores, but first half missed opportunities got the Sycamores behind the 8-ball.
ISU had a textbook spread offense drive to start the game as it penetrated to the YSU 6. But the red zone woes that plagued the Sycamores at Tennessee Tech a week ago reared their ugly head again. YSU held ISU to a 23-yard Tanner Fritschle field goal as ISU led 3-0.
It was the high point for the Sycamores ... and they only had 19 seconds to enjoy it. YSU’s Andre Stubbs returned the ensuing kick 52 yards into ISU territory. One play later, Ruiz found a hole on the left side and went untouched 44 yards to put the Penguins up 7-3.
ISU got into the red zone again on its next drive, but came up completely empty when Fritschle’s 33-yard field goal attempt caromed off the left upright.
ISU seemed to have the onus to regain control after a 61-yard Riley punt return set the Sycamores up at the YSU 14. But three plays later, disaster struck. On 3rd-and-20, Perish forced a pass on the right sidleine and it was picked off by YSU’s Jameel Smith at the YSU 5.
Smith had a clear path to near midfield. He waited for blockers, pivoted around ISU’s tacklers, cut to the sideline, and had a convoy of Penguins escort him the remaining distance for a 95-yard interception return to make it 14-3.
“We have to be better in the red zone. We can’t give up interceptions for touchdowns,” Sanford said.
To that point, ISU had been in the red zone three times ... and scored just three points and had given away six more.
“[The failure to score] on those first three drives kind of put us behind,” Perish said. “We can’t do that. I take a lot of the blame. Our offensive line blocked, our receivers did their job and our backs ran well. We had a solid game, but missed some chances.”
The Penguins (5-1, 2-0) took command midway through the second quarter. Aided by 25 yards in ISU penalties, YSU went 77 yards in seven plays, a drive finished off by an easy 13-yard touchdown run by Ruiz. YSU led 21-3.
ISU enjoyed a ray of sunshine with 3:31 left in the half. A 10-play, 77-yard drive was finished off by a 27-yard Perish-to-Sampson Levingston touchdown.
Levingston has 11 catches for the Sycamores this season with six having gone for touchdowns, including three on Saturday.
“I don’t know what it is,” Levingston said. “I had five touchdowns during my senior season and never had more than one in a game. The coaches trust me in the red zone and I want them to continue to.”
The Levingston touchdown was a brief respite for ISU. YSU used a blend of Ruiz and quick back Webb to march 80 yards in 12 plays. A 6-yard Ruiz run made it 28-10 with 9:37 left in the third quarter.
The misery continued unabated. The press box elevator broke just before halftime and some of the game clock crew was caught out. YSU had to burn a timeout when the play clock wasn’t stopped after a play from scrimmage shortly after halftime. Later, the game clock ran for approximately 25 seconds during an ISU possession after an incomplete Sycamore pass.
Mother Nature piled on later in the third quarter. With 3:02 left, a 75-minute lightning delay prolonged the agony.
YSU put it away with 8:51 to go when Christian Bryan caught a 2-yard touchdown pass from YSU quarterback Kurt Hess.
ISU scored an unusual touchdown with 7:48 left. Perish found Kyani Harris deep who ran to the YSU 10. Harris lateraled to Chris O’Leary, who got to the 5-yard line when he lateraled to Levingston, who scored a touchdown. It was a highlight reel play in an otherwise forgettable day.
Levingston scored against with 1:51 on a 17-yard touchdown catch. Because college rules mean the lateral counted as a touchdown reception, but not a catch, Levingston had a bizarre stat line: two catches for 56 yards and three touchdown receptions.
ISU plays four of its next five games on the road. A trip to South Dakota begins the trek next Saturday. The Coyotes earned their first-ever MVFC victory on Saturday with a 17-14 triumph over Missouri State.
“We have to refuse to lose. We can’t go on anymore like this. We have to win a conference game on the road,” Sanford said.