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DOWN IN THE VALLEY: Eastern Kentucky postmortem

The vibe among those wearing blue outside Eastern Kentucky’s Roy Kidd Stadium late Saturday night was festive. Everyone smiled, everyone was the other’s person buddy in the wake of a 26-21 victory over the host Colonels. As the Sycamores made it back to their Turner buses, they were each greeted to a hero’s welcome. 

And why wouldn’t the fans be over-the-moon? There’s a lot of ways to win in football and they had just experienced perhaps the best kind – a desperation touchdown pass with no time on the clock for the ultimate smash-and-grab on the road.

The players were all smiles too. And why wouldn’t they be? They go back to Terre Haute and enter Missouri Valley Football Conference play at 2-1, the record most logically-thinking observers would have pegged the Sycamores to have. Moreover, they get to take on FCS national runner-up South Dakota State riding a wave of good feeling.

I walked out of Roy Kidd Stadium – earlier than I normally would, more on that in a bit – reveling in everyone’s happiness. I ran into punter Travis Reiner on my way out. He was as thrilled as you imagine. I even showed him the video I shot of the final play. Why wouldn’t anyone in ISU blue want to view it over and over again?

The final play was the product of excellence design. ISU coach Curt Mallory called for Plan B after he saw Eastern Kentucky’s defensive set. The stacked receivers to the right worked perfectly. Harry Van Dyne seemed to draw more attention out of the set and Phazione McClurge got the reward, coming open around the 10-yard line. ISU quarterback Kurtis Wilderman saw him, delivered a perfect strike, and McClurge survived the big hit from the late-arriving safety to clinch glory.

It was all a lot of fun. And in a sport where the clock dictates the flow, for all of the talk about it being a 60-minute game, you can have one play that, in this case, took one second of game-time to determine the outcome.

One second to save the Sycamores’ bacon. It was great. It was memorable.

But let’s not forget the 59 minutes, 59 seconds before that point that put ISU in a position where it’s bacon had to be saved in the first place. Nor the overall accounting of the first three games of the season.

After three games, there’s still quite a bit of uncertainty attached to the Sycamores. Among the purposes the nonconference season is supposed to serve is to answer questions. There might be more questions than there were before the season.

The quarterback position is up in the air. Anthony Thompson had been mostly mistake-free and steady, if unspectacular, through two-and-a-half games.

Two mistakes, or so it would appear to outside observers, led to Thompson being benched in the second half. Thompson threw a pick-six and a costly interception in the red zone in the final five minutes of the first half.

Late heroics aside, Wilderman was also steady, if unspectacular, so where does this position go from here?

Mallory made it clear from the start that both quarterbacks would play, but he also made the point of naming a starter two weeks before the season, citing the fact he wanted the rest of the team to have certainty. Now, as the conference season begins, certainty is out the window. Wilderman probably deserves a chance based on his finish, but how long is his rope?

ISU fashions itself a running team, but that hasn’t been done effectively so far. The Sycamores have averaged 98.3 yards per game, second-worst in the MVFC ahead of only Western Illinois, a team that has significantly more passing attempts than rushing ones.

ISU’s defense hasn’t been bad statistically, the 313.3 yards given up is fifth in the MVFC, but it’s been consistency that’s been an issue. There have been periods – second half against Eastern Illinois, first two series against Northwestern, last series against EKU – where the defense looked vulnerable.

Special teams have given up 22.8 yards per punt return and nearly gave up a kick return on Saturday. Punting and kicking (mostly) have been solid, but those returns are killers.

Then there’s the effect of injuries. Losing wide receiver Dante Hendrix, he is questionable for the first two MVFC games, is a huge miss because he alters the opposing coverage. Losing all-everything Michael Haupert takes away a weapon ISU likes to utilize in myriad ways. We’ll see about Keagen Trost and Isaiah Edwards, both of whom were hurt at EKU.

Saturday was a ton of fun. Games like that are what make college football the spectacle it is, but though that one second was glorious, the Sycamores still have a lot of convincing to do to show they can perform consistently over all 60 minutes … with the hard part coming with conference play about to begin.

A look at the game

Passing game – Between them, Thompson and Wilderman had more passing yards (213) than the Sycamores had in any previous game. Still, the numbers are average. A combined 17 of 34 completion rate. Wilderman was better at 11 of 17 for 111 yards, but to be fair, he was in the game when ISU needed to pass. Thompson was 6 of 15 for 102 yards, 52 of them on one pass to Rontrez Morgan.

So the world turns on the QBs, but I was encouraged by who was catching the balls. McClurge did quite a bit more than just catch the dramatic touchdown. He caught 6 for 75 yards, a much-needed bit of production with Dante Hendrix out. Morgan continues to be steady with 4 catches for 75 yards.

Running game – Nowhere near where it needs to be. ISU averaged 3.7 yards per carry, which isn’t bad, but when you take out Justin Dinka’s 33-yard run? The average drops to 2.6.

I feel sometimes like rushing yards per carry needs a tweak. It’s very easy to have it skewed by long run. Take the longest run out, and use the NFL rule where sacks don’t count against the total, and you get a much better reflection of where a team was for the full 60 minutes.

Anyway, I did think Peterson Kerlegrand ran a bit harder in the second half. ISU needs a lot more from him. He’s a veteran who has produced before. Dinka, the San Diego State transfer, did look good in small doses. If the pattern to date continues, Dinka might deserve a longer look.

Blocking – Didn’t notice anything untoward. ISU gave up one sack, and when in obvious passing downs, EKU brought more pressure as expected, but the Sycamores handled it OK.

Trost started at left tackle, but was hurt early on.

Pass rush – Pretty good job on EKU quarterback Parker McKinney. The Sycamores had two sacks and five quarterback hurries. Kaleb Brewer had a half-sack and two QB hurries.

Still, McKinney did complete 23 of 38 passes for 205 yards, so he had some moments of comfort.

One must always look at the ISU defensive backs in the pass rush numbers. Ty Hambright had a half-sack and a hurry. The Sycamores will bring pressure from anywhere.

Run defense – Much better than it was the week before against Northwestern. The Colonels averaged 3.3 yards per carry, and again, taking out the longest gain? The average drops to 1.9 yards.

Pass coverage – EKU routinely used three and sometimes four receivers, much in the same way the Sycamores will do. That’s a challenge that ISU sometimes rose to and sometimes didn’t. When the chips were down, EKU did complete eight passes on its final series.

So playing the take-the-stats-out game, that means McKinney was 15 of 30 on the rest of his passes. Still decent, but not dominating.

Special teams – One special teams play giveth, another taketh away.

ISU got a touchdown when EKU punter Phillip Richards dropped a snap and was bum-rushed by the Sycamore rush, resulting in a Hunter Lunsford fumble recovery in the end zone.

Later, when ISU needed a bit of insurance up three, Alan Selzer missed a 34-yarder. After that, EKU drove downfield for what seemed to be the game-winning drive.

ISU’s kick coverage still wasn’t very good. EKU had 108 yards on four returns, including a 39-yarder that would have been a TD if kickoff specialist Brayden Johnson didn’t make a saving tackle. ISU’s returns are being handled by JJ Henderson, but he didn’t have much to do in the game.


- One thing I was looking for in the game was whether ISU could replace the playmaking ability of Hendrix and Haupert. There, I saw some encouraging things.

Most I already mentioned. McClurge filled a void in the receiving corps. ISU has needed a receiver besides Morgan to emerge from what was supposedly a deep group. McClurge fit the bill.

Dinka had his moments. He’s a different back than Kerlegrand, more of a speed option on the outside.

Zach Larkin, who played out of the wildcat a few times when Haupert was healthy, took over that role full-time. While Larkin is not going to blaze by anyone like Haupert can, he can use some power to gain some yards. He did a great job using power and grace to pick up an ISU fourth down.

- Think about the loss from EKU’s perspective. Not only was there a last-play touchdown, but also two special teams plays that went horribly wrong, leading directly to 14 ISU points.

There was the dropped punt in the first half. The latter was a decision made by EKU coach Walt Wells to try what appeared to be an onside kick after EKU took a 21-17 lead with :49 left.

Or was it an onside kick. Here’s Wells’ thoughts from the Richmond (Ky.) Register.

“We called a squib,” Wells said. “A squib usually goes in the air a little bit. I haven’t talked to [kicker] Patrick [Nations] yet, but I’m sure he just mis-hit it.”

Perhaps it wasn’t executed correctly, but is a squib the right call regardless? That’s up to your own Monday morning quarterback definition, but Nations had one touchback in the game and ISU had one fair catch on another kickoff.

- For the time, well, ever, I attended two college football games in a single day in two different states.

My daughter is a student at Indiana and she’s a member of the Marching Hundred. She was a three-year drum major at Terre Haute South, but after the pandemic year at home, she didn’t appear destined to continue her band adventures at IU.

Then she changed her mind pretty late in the game, too late for me to make arrangements to take in the performance she was most looking forward to, a “Hamilton” themed halftime show against Cincinnati. Mom and daughter watch the play very often and mom wanted to go. So did I.

So I did my best. The IU game started at noon. ISU kicked off at 7 p.m. It’s three hours and change from Bloomington to Richmond, Ky. Doable if I left the IU game at halftime after the band performance.

Turned out that way, but that’s not an adventure I intend to repeat. First, since the IU game was soldout, my wife and I had to leave at about 8 a.m. It was going to be a very long day when you consider that the ISU game plus postgame would likely have me at Roy Kidd Stadium until 11 p.m. or so.

Secondly, it was hot. Really hot. There’s no escape from the sun at Indiana and it beat down unrelentingly. I have the burns on my scalp to prove it.

By the time I got to EKU, I was dead on my feet. That’s not the best way to be when covering a game.

I intend to go to one more IU game – the Rutgers contest on Nov. 13. But I will not be trying to do both that and the ISU game, so Andy Amey or David Hughes will pinch-hit for me on that day.  

Still, long after the aches and pains and fatigue wear off, I’ll have the memory of watching my daughter perform in a great college atmosphere. So hard though it was? I wouldn’t change a thing.

- EKU has a great football tradition, but Roy Kidd Stadium is a strange facility.

It’s basically a carbon copy of Missouri State’s Plaster Stadium (cough, Field). There’s large concrete section played on top of a smaller one. Architecturally, both are concrete brutalist structures commonly build on college campuses from the 1960s to the 1990s. (Plaster Field was remodeled in 1991.)

That’s where the similarity ends. Roy Kidd Stadium was built in 1969, and based on the signage and other lack of updates on the press box side, I’m not sure it’s been touched beyond cosmetic additions since. The outside definitely looked like it badly needed a paint job.

OK, so what, what does that mean for me? Well, there was no elevator. On a hot, humid day with a high press box, that was not a welcome development.

Fair enough, I can suck it up, but the inside of Roy Kidd Stadium was a crazy maze of staircases, hallways (like Youngstown State’s Stambaugh Stadium, there are offices and classrooms built into the building underneath the concrete super-structure) and dead ends.

There was no sign to the press box from the entrance, so I wandered aimlessly throughout the facility before I finally solved the labyrinth and made it to the press box, which was cramped, un-air conditioned and pretty uncomfortable with the humidity trapped in with only a slight breeze for relief. My lengthy day didn’t help matters.

Post-game caused a similar issue, as it was another mazey stroll down to where ISU’s press availability was.

Certainly not EKU’s staff’s fault, and they couldn’t have been nicer, but I had no intention of making that climb again postgame. I went back to my hotel to write.

Still, I was really glad I was there. Traveling to games is becoming rarer and rarer for media organizations that often don’t have available personnel, the travel budget or both to do what was once automatic.

We continue to travel for ISU, but it’s expensive, and constantly under threat in the budget. Being able to be there to talk to all of the principles in a miracle finish is why we go. I hope you can continue to support us and our commitment to doing this beat right.

- Around the MVFC, I’ll be brief, because I intend to write about the MVFC in more depth later in the week, but it was good Saturday.

The league went 7-1, the only loss was a shootout in Macomb as the Leathernecks fell 62-56 to FCS No. 7 Eastern Washington.

What a wild game that was. EWU led 55-21 at halftime, only to barely survive a remarkable WIU comeback that fell just short. Quarterbacks Eric Barriere of EWU and Connor Sampson of WIU combined for 967 passing yards.

The rest of the games were pretty much what you’d expect. North Dakota beat Drake 38-0 in Grand Forks. UNI knocked off FCS-to-be St. Thomas 44-3 in Cedar Falls. Southern Illinois dump-trucked Dayton 55-3 in Carbondale.

Away from home, the MVFC fared just as well. South Dakota went to the West Coast and beat Cal Poly 48-14. North Dakota State went to the East Coast and beat Towson 35-7.

Illinois State made a much shorter trip to Charleston, Ill. and did about the same against Eastern Illinois as the Sycamores did, winning a tight contest 31-24 thanks to a Pha’leak Brown touchdown with 1:54 left.

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Todd Aaron Golden has been Sports Editor and Indiana State beat writer since September 2004. Born in Milwaukee but an Indiana resident most of his adult life, he previously worked in Jeffersonville, Columbus and Eau Claire, Wis.