TERRE HAUTE —
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Indiana State’s red zone offense “ain’t” broke, in fact, the Sycamores are ranked 10th in the Football Championship Subdivision in red-zone offense scoring percentage.
Still, last Saturday’s 38-37 loss to Tennessee Tech stung a bit more considering that the Sycamores had chances they didn’t cash in against the Golden Eagles in scoring range.
ISU was in the red zone six times. It scored touchdowns on three occasions, settled for a field goal twice and didn’t score at all on another red-zone possession.
Given that ISU’s red zone scoring percentage is at .933 for the season, there’s no reason to panic, but given that ISU less than the margin of a field goal away from being 2-2 instead of 1-3, converting red-zone opportunities into touchdowns is paramount for the Sycamores as they embark on Missouri Valley Football Conference play on Saturday against Youngstown State in the annual Homecoming contest.
“We have to take advantage of our opportunities. We were good in the red zone prior to this game, but we have to score touchdowns,” ISU coach Mike Sanford said.
To note that execution is the key to success in the red zone is not exactly revelatory, but it’s still something that is constantly worked on by ISU’s coaches. So how does a team make itself better?
Half the battle is recognizing that it’s a different game inside the 20. ISU’s spread offense, for example, is hemmed in by the short field. Precision — particularly in throws and pass routes — become paramount as the defense can more easily defend the limited space.
“Once you get down in the red zone, the field is short. Defensive backs aren’t afraid to get beat deep. You have to react a bit quicker and be on top of your game. Everything’s quicker,” ISU quarterback Mike Perish said.
Sanford noted that it’s a week-to-week process to maintain red zone success. Every team defends a short field a bit different. Film study will usually reveal, as it has regarding Youngstown State for Sanford and his staff, what can be attempted to exploit a weakness.
While the passing game changes one thing doesn’t when it comes to moving the ball anywhere on the field.
“You have to run the football well in the red zone. When we ran well in the red zone, we scored. When we didn’t, we didn’t score,” Sanford said.
ISU’s red zone scoring percentage is in the top 10 nationally, but it is possible that the Tennessee Tech game was more indicative of things to come than the Sycamores would like to admit. ISU ranks 103rd in third down conversions (.304), and obviously, converting third downs or avoiding third down altogether are important to red zone success too.
As long as ISU’s offense is productive — it had 554 total yards in the loss last Saturday — it will have chances to score. The Sycamores just want to make sure those chances are cashed in.
“It’s all about attitude. It’s an attitude we have to have that we don’t accept anything less than a touchdown. When you have that attitude, it gives you that extra step to make a play,” Perish said.
“We did a lot of good things [against Tennessee Tech]. We moved the ball, we made a lot of big plays, but what we’re focused on is that we had a few mistakes that really hurt us. It kept the game closer and we ended up losing the game for us. We want to be more consistent,” he added.
n Assessing the nonconference season — ISU played four nonconference games and all four were different in their way. ISU suffered an ugly blowout loss, triumphed in a blowout win, and had two close losses, though the tenor of each setback was different.
ISU will play its next eight games against Missouri Valley Football Conference competition, starting with YSU. Despite a 1-3 record, the Sycamores feel they’re better than they were when they began their season journey at Indiana on Aug. 29.
“We showed a lot of progress. You can see it from the Indiana game to now. We’ve improved a lot and we’re still improving,” Perish said.
At various stages of the nonconference season, injuries took away six Sycamores who started against the Hoosiers in the season opener, five of those players from the defensive side.
The upshot is that a lot of ISU’s young players got to prove themselves.
“We’ve got a ton of experience for our young players. With the injuries we’ve had, we’ve moved young guys into playing roles and the experience has helped them,” Sanford said.
n Injury report — ISU’s defense continued to suffer more injury blows. Safety Phil Wilson and linebacker Jordan Jackson, both of whom played in place of other injured ISU starters, are doubtful on Saturday, according to Sanford.
Sanford said wide receiver Demory Lawshe, who suffered a concussion on a controversial second quarter hit on Saturday, has cleared his concussion test and should be done with his four-day waiting period by Saturday’s game.
It is hoped that the beleaguered secondary will get a boost if starting safety Donovan Layne makes his long-awaited return from an ankle sprain. Other stricken Sycamores could return as well.
“Donovan Layne is the best he’s been. A guy who’s been getting ready to play, but hasn’t is Chris O’Leary. Mark Sewall played, but wasn’t 100 percent, but he’s getting better and better,” Sanford said.