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Sports Columns

September 8, 2013

FROM THE PRESS BOX: Indiana State proves plenty in 20-14 loss at Purdue

WEST LAFAYETTE — No moral victories?

Bull. Its always been bull and it will always be bull. The Sycamores proved again that moral victories are very real, and can be very rewarding.

All they needed to do to prove it was to look at the stunned faces of the Purdue faithful at Ross-Ade Stadium in the Sycamores’ near-miss 20-14 loss to Purdue.

No one ever wants to admit to a moral victory, least of all, coaches and players who go through the pain of a tough defeat. They aren’t in the mood to be soothed by the idea that though they fell short, they still gave it their all.

“We didn’t win, we fell short, we ran out of time, and we didn’t make enough plays, but I’m very proud of our team. Our goal was to be the most improved team in the country from Week 1 to Week 2. In a lot of ways, we did that,” ISU coach Mike Sanford said.

I won’t watch every college football game this weekend, but I think I’m on solid ground when I say that ISU comfortably accomplished Sanford’s mission.

After looking abject against the Hoosiers in the now infamous 73-35 loss on Aug. 29, the Sycamores swung 180 degrees and looked like a legitimate Missouri Valley Football Conference contender against Purdue.

Hyperbole? I don’t think so. Yes Purdue isn’t very good by Big Ten standards and it’s likely to be a long season in West Lafayette.

But Purdue is a lot closer to the norm of what ISU is going to face week-to-week in the MVFC than high-flying Indiana is. The positives seen Saturday were ones that can be projected upon the likes of the Dakota schools and other MVFC contenders.

It really was eye-popping to see ISU go from one extreme to the other. ISU went from seemingly endless question marks to a laundry list of positives.

“We improved a lot. We improved a lot on both offense and defense. I’m happy with a lot of the strides we made even though we wanted to win,” ISU defensive end Connor Underwood said.

Chief among them was ISU’s ability to handle adversity. The Sycamores did so miles better than they did against the Hoosiers. ISU suffered an opening kickoff return for a touchdown, lost their best receiving target (Jamar Brown) on the second series and went through a rough patch where the offensive line struggled, which resulted in quarterback Mike Perish being sacked five times.

“We made it through some adverse situations. Some of those plays killed drives. If we get rid of those drive-killers, I think it shows we have a lot of potential,” Perish said.

But the Sycamores still stayed the course. After some adroit halftime adjustments, the ISU offense was rolling. Of ISU’s 295 yards of total offense, 224 were gained in the second half.

“The positive is we played together really well. Against a team like Purdue, we showed we can compete and we showed we can gain some respect. Next time, we just need to get a victory,” said ISU wide receiver Demory Lawshe, who had one of ISU’s two second half touchdowns.

The biggest thing ISU proved was that it could move the ball without the services of running back Shakir Bell. For the offense to operate without the player who accounted for nearly 50 percent of their gains from scrimmage in 2012 is a wonderful thing.

After being exploited in equal parts via the run and pass against Indiana, ISU’s defense took a significant step forward. Purdue might not be on-task offensively at this stage of the season, but ISU made the Boilermakers that way on Saturday.

Quarterback Rob Henry never got comfortable. Purdue’s running backs broke some runs, but not with any consistency. And the goal line stands by ISU’s defensive line and linebackers? Those are the kind of moments that cement a defense and make it whole.

“We don’t like to take moral victories, but that’s a Big Ten team. They’re a good team, a physical team, but I think our defense showed we can play with anyone in the nation,” ISU safety Mark Sewall said.

The special teams? They still need work, but you can’t have it all. A kick return was given up and a punt was blocked. But the special teams even got better as time went on, evidenced by Jordon Stangler’s perfect coffin corner punt late in the fourth quarter.

Bottom line is that the feeling of unease (dread?) for ISU’s prospects this season that came out of the Indiana game dissipated. Now, ISU can move forward with a sense of purpose, and can also know that they have the ability to make the IU loss an aberration not the norm.

Even if it was all accomplished in the context of defeat.

“This is a journey, it’s not a destination. We’re on the way to making ourselves a great football team. We’re not there yet. We should have won today. If we’re a great football team, we win today,” Sanford said.

Great? No. Better? Without a doubt.

It’s a moral victory. Don’t run away from it. Wear it well.

Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or todd.golden@tribstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @TribStarTodd.

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