VERMILLION, S.D. —
Six games ago, Indiana State’s football team had Missouri Valley Football Conference title and Football Championship Subdivision playoff aspirations.
But after a 17-14 loss at South Dakota on Saturday, those hopes have melted away in the harsh reality of a 1-5 overall record and winless MVFC start.
Halfway through its season, ISU is searching for answers after yet another defeat that could have gone the other way for the Sycamores, but didn’t because of missed chances and mistakes of their own making.
“It’s like ... unbelievable frustration. We’re close, but we can’t get over the hump. It’s something we have to figure out how to do,” ISU coach Mike Sanford said.
ISU was outgained by USD 370-198 in total offense.
But the Sycamores mitigated the Coyotes’ yardage advantage with three forced turnovers and a blocked field goal. Still, the opportunities the Sycamores created for themselves too often crashed on the rocks and washed away.
“It’s going to to hurt. It’s going to hurt all the way through Monday when we watch the film,” ISU running back Shakir Bell said.
Injuries, which have played a significant role in distorting ISU’s season out of all recognition, continued on Saturday. Defensive end Conrrad Nicholls and fullback Jerry Stephen both went down with unspecified injuries.
So did quarterback Mike Perish. He was hit late by USD’s Sean Bredl at the 6:22 mark of the first quarter. Perish returned to play two series, but was replaced permanently by Robert Tonyan Jr. at the 9:16 mark of the second quarter.
Perish suffered an injury to right knee on the play. Perish was walking after the game, but his future status is uncertain.
Tonyan completed 8 of 17 passes for just 34 yards in relief. At times, Tonyan’s feet helped move ISU’s offense, but the going was tough against USD’s pass defense, the best in the nation in FCS.
“I want the whole game back. I’m disappointed in myself,” Tonyan said. “I missed a lot of opportunities that are easy to fix. I have to cut down on the young mistakes I made.”
ISU got off to a rough start. USD quarterback Kevin Earl found tight end Tyler Wilhelm in single coverage for a 50-yard catch to set up a 3-yard touchdown run by Trevor Bouma to give the Coyotes a 7-0 advantage.
ISU answered on its second series, and not coincidentally, it was the first series that Bell took part in. Bell gave the Sycamores an immediate threat out of the backfield, but USD did more harm to themselves. Two 15-yard penalties helped get ISU to the USD 22. From there, Perish — who had injured his knee two plays before — threw a perfect floater in the end zone to A.J. Johnson to knot the contest.
Bell rushed for 80 yards on 16 carries. Sanford wanted to ease him into action after Bell was hurt early in ISU’s loss to Youngstown State on Oct. 5.
“We didn’t want to happen what happened last week. We were going to rotate him in. He didn’t practice until Thursday. We thought the right thing to do was to start Buck Logan,” Sanford said.
USD and ISU couldn’t break the deadlock. Hurting the Sycamores was erratic play in both of its lines, but the Coyotes hurt themselves with turnovers. Earl threw two interceptions in the end zone to keep USD off the board.
ISU couldn’t spin the first two USD turnovers into hay, but when USD punt returner Terrance Terry muffed an ill-advised attempt to field a Jordon Stangler punt on a bounce, Tsali Lough recovered at the USD 22 and that turnover was a bridge too far for the Coyotes.
Four plays later, with ISU at the USD 3, Tonyan rolled to this right and found tight end Logan Buske in the back of the end zone to put the Sycamores up 14-7 with 1:06 left in the half.
Little did ISU know that it would be the last time it would get on the board.
USD whittled away at the Sycamores in the second half. A 43-yard Bergner field goal cut ISU’s lead to 14-10 with 6:57 left in the third quarter.
Whether USD scored or not, its running game took time off the clock. The Coyotes rushed for 205 yards, but when sacks are taken out of the total, USD gained 233. Bouma had 145 of the yards on the ground.
“They hit their keys and we weren’t in our positions properly and didn’t do our responsibilities we needed to do to win,” ISU defensive tackle Tyler Boyd said. “They exposed us. They found the holes. They got chunks on every play. It took a toll.”
ISU — and Tonyan — also had to contend with USD linebacker Tyler Starr in the second half. Starr was suspended for the first half after a targeting penalty against Missouri State, but once he entered the game he was a force.
Starr had seven tackles and one sack in his only half of action. ISU began to roll away from Starr’s side of the field on passing downs.
“We’re not putting our defense in harm’s way very often,” USD coach Joe Glenn said. “They had a short-field touchdown and that was about it. Then you bring in Tyler Starr and that makes us even better.”
Despite the yardage advantage, the Coyotes had trouble turning them into points. ISU maintained its lead into the fourth quarter when field position turned the tide.
After USD (3-3, 2-1) stopped ISU inside its own 10, the Coyotes took over at the ISU 36. USD still needed 10 plays to go 36 yards, but Bouma made no mistake on his 4-yard touchdown as ISU’s defensive line melted away on a run up the middle to put the Coyotes up 17-14.
Donovan Layne gave the Sycamores a lifeline with 8:06 left when he blocked a Bergner field goal attempt. ISU drove into USD territory, converting a fourth down along the way, but its fate came down to a pivotal third-and-4 play from the USD 34.
ISU decided to throw the dice and go long. Johnson was the intended receiver down the left sideline. He was held by a pair of USD defenders and a flag was thrown.
But pass interference was negated as Tonyan’s throw, in the air at the time the flag was thrown, sailed well wide of the mark and out of bounds. The flag was picked up as it was ruled an uncatchable ball, ISU couldn’t convert the ensuing fourth down, and USD ran out the clock when it took over possession.
“It would have been a pass interference, but Rob threw it out of bounds. It was an uncatchable ball. It was a good call. I asked the official about it and that’s why they waved the flag off. It was legitimate,” Sanford said. “I told Robert, ‘If you throw it where A.J. has a chance to catch it, it’s a first down and we don’t have this discussion.’ ”
ISU (1-5, 0-2) returns to action next Saturday as it travels to Illinois State.