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DOWN IN THE VALLEY: South Dakota State postmortem

  • 8 min to read
Sycamores fall short against No. 2 Jackrabbits

Tribune-Star/Joseph C. Garza Everything was difficult: Indiana State quarterback Kurtis Wilderman tries to escape the grasp of South Dakota State defensive end Tolu Ogunrinde during the Sycamores' 44-0 loss on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

Curt Mallory's postgame press conference after Indiana State's 44-0 loss to South Dakota State on Sept. 25, 2021.

I was a history major long ago in my college days, so I'm always up to fall back on history to try to explain the present.

Indiana State's alternating quarterbacks - Kurtis Wilderman and Anthony Thompson would rotate a play or three apart from the late second quarter onward - is unusual, but it's not unprecedented.

The most famous example of what ISU did on Saturday took place when the Dallas Cowboys visited the Chicago Bears on Halloween in 1971.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SsgZizZChr8

Cowboys coach Tom Landry famously couldn't decide between Roger Staubach and Craig Morton, one a future Hall of Famer, the other a Hall Of Good QB. Going back to 1969, he had used both quarterbacks, though one would usually play and the other would play sparingly or not at all.

In 1971 against the Bears, Landry took it to the extreme of having Morton and Staubach play every other offensive down. The Cowboys, already having camps of players who supported Morton and those who wanted Staubach, didn't respond to either. The Cowboys lost 23-19 at Soldier Field to a Bears team that would finish 6-8.

You might be saying to yourself if you know your history ... didn't the 1971 Cowboys win the Super Bowl? Indeed they did, winning Super Bowl VI over Miami 24-3.

But that only came after Landry decided that the division his indecisiveness on the quarterback situation had created was becoming too distracting to his team. After the Bears loss, Landry rode Staubach the rest of the way.

Dallas was 4-3 after that loss to Chicago and once the quarterback situation was settled, the Cowboys didn't lose another game that season.

Staubach would remain the starter until he retired after the 1979 season, winning one more Super Bowl and playing in two others. Morton was eventually traded to the New York Giants before he had a late-career revival with the Broncos.

There have been other instances where two quarterbacks were played in games. In the 1970s, Washington had trouble deciding between Billy Kilmer and Sonny Jurgensen with both often playing in the same game.

Though Washington was a power at the time, it couldn't get over the hump trying to play both and Washington's 70s team never got back to the Super Bowl after getting beaten by Miami in Super Bowl VII.

There have been other alternating quarterback scenarios in both NFL and the college ranks and the common theme you read in nearly all of them is that the experiment eventually failed and the team that was doing it usually had to pick one quarterback or another to get consistency.

(A lone exception is the late 1940s/early 1950s Los Angeles Rams, who played both Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin with success.)

Watching ISU alternate quarterbacks on Saturday, I knew of some of the historic precedents and I was skeptical how it would work. I'm no less so after seeing it in action.

First, let's be honest. Part of the reason this in-game platoon exists is because neither has distinguished himself enough to break from the other. Both have been no more than mediocre.

Thompson is safer, and he had better numbers on Saturday than Wilderman, but safer doesn't mean more effective as far as moving the sticks. Neither threw an accurate medium or deep ball on Saturday.

Moreover, with Dante Hendrix out, ISU loses a playmaker who stretches the field and changes the defense for ISU's other receivers. Also, with no Michael Haupert, it means ISU has no one to run the wildcat, a wrinkle that would have undoubtedly been seen on Saturday.

Also, the offensive line, while not giving up a ton of sacks, has also not been near where it needs to be to put either quarterback in a position to maximize their talents.

So, fine, there are mitigating circumstances that have hurt the Sycamores overall and the quarterbacks specifically, but none of that means it's advisable to not pick one over the other.

Quarterback, maybe more so than any position in sports, is something that requires continuity. It's a leadership position and it's never a good idea to split a leadership position, no matter how capable either player is of accepting it.

I have no sense that the Sycamores are split on the opinion of Thompson or Wilderman, or how they fundamentally feel trepidation about having alternating quarterbacks.

However, doing so opens up the possibility that factions could develop that could harm team chemistry. That's one of the reasons why Landry ultimately made a choice in 1971.

The two quarterbacks are so similar, I'm not sure there's a wrinkle one or the other has that distinguishes them from an opposing defense's point of view.

I think it's time to pick one and ride with it. I'm not about to suggest that picking Wilderman or Thompson is going to be the match that lights a 1971 Cowboys-style run for the Cowboys.

But I am suggesting that picking one or the other will give one or the other confidence that they can carry forward. Not to mention that it's hard to build consistency or a rhythm when you're coming in and out of the game constantly.

I just think quarterback is the one position that shouldn't be messed with. It will be interesting to see what Mallory sees on film and to see if he comes to the same conclusion Landry did in 1971.

A look at the game

• Passing game – The quarterback pair combined to go 14 of 29 for 148 yards and an interception. Wilderman threw more, 22 times, but only had four more completions (nine) than Thompson (five). Thompson was 5 of 6.

Both QBs seemed to do better when ISU began to run patterns that helped them find tight end Zach Larkin over the middle. Nearly every pass thrown was no more than medium-deep and most were short throws.

Then there was the bad luck factor. Henry Woodcock dropped a touchdown in the end zone in the fourth quarter. When it rains, it pours.

Sycamores fall short against No. 2 Jackrabbits

Tribune-Star/Joseph C. Garza Fighting for every yard: Indiana State's Peterson Kerlegrand carries the ball against the South Dakota State defense during the Sycamores' loss on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

• Running game – Peterson Kerlegrand rushed for 76 yards on 21 carries, averaging 3.6 yards. He seemed to run harder as the game went along, a good sign.

There wasn't much of any running production beyond Kerlegrand.

• Blocking – Four games in and ISU's running game still hasn't come into form. The offensive line has to bear a chunk of the responsibility for that. ISU is only averaging three yards per carry for the season, which isn't nearly good enough. The push just isn't consistently there, witness a 4th-and-1 that wasn't converted early in the second quarter.

ISU's QB aren't constantly on the run, but pass protection waxes and wanes as well.

• Pass rush – ISU's pass rush has been decent this season, but SDSU's offensive line put a stop to that on Saturday. The Sycamores did not sack SDSU quarterback Chris Oladokun. They did record four QB hurries, but Oladokun has some mobility and escaped containment more than once.

Sycamores fall short against No. 2 Jackrabbits

Tribune-Star/Joseph C. Garza Everything seemed to go their way: Indiana State defensive back Michael Thomas tries to block a pass to South Dakota State tight end Tucker Kraft during the Sycamores' 44-0 loss to the Jackrabbits on Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Kraft made the catch and scored.

• Pass coverage – Trying to stop SDSU's potent pass attack was always going to be difficult and so it was for the Sycamores. The Jackrabbits threw for 293 yards, but had SDSU not taken the foot off the pedal in the latter part of the third quarter, it could have been more.

ISU just seemed a step behind in coverage and SDSU's receivers feasted. Tackling wasn't wonderful on runs or passes on Saturday and that certainly didn't help the Sycamores' cause either.

• Special teams – Punt coverage improved immensely, though ISU did have one fair catch interference call.

Mallory was annoyed that Brayden Johnson booted the opening kickoff out of bounds. He felt the favorable field position gave the Jacks an unneeded boost on their first series, one they eventually scored on.

Observations

- Is there a pattern to ascertain from the alternating quarterback plan? Let's try to find out.

I'm going to split this into down-and-distance and pass vs. run. I am counting plays from the second-last series of the second quarter, when the alternating began in earnest. (I might have missed a play or two):

First down, pass:

Wilderman 5, Thompson 2. 

First down, run:

Thompson 10, Wilderman 3. 

Second down, pass:

Wilderman 7, Thompson 2 

Second down, run:

Thompson 4, Wilderman 2

Third down and less than five, run:

Thompson 2, Wilderman 1

Third down and more than five, pass:

Wilderman 6

Third down and more than five, run:

Wilderman 1

Fourth down, pass:

Wilderman 2, Thompson 1

Totals

Run plays: Thompson 16, Wilderman 7

Pass plays: Wilderman 20, Thompson 5

First down plays: Thompson 13, Wilderman 8

Second down: Wilderman 9, Thompson 6

Third down: Wilderman 8, Thompson 2

Fourth down: Wilderman 2, Thompson 1

Reading into that, you'd say Thompson played on runs and Wilderman passes, but both did enough of the other to not make it too obvious of a pattern one way or another.

- In this could have been better or this could have been worse game, I lean towards worse. Believe it or not, SDSU left some plays out on the field. A field goal was blocked and some receivers were missed or had drops on series where ISU ultimately made some stops.

That's football. And, of course, in some of the fourth downs where ISU decided to go for it, those would have been field goals in a closer game. Also, a sure touchdown was dropped too.

- Count me among those who no longer understands how officials interpret the targeting rule. There were two targeting reviews in the game, both on SDSU defenders, both in the first half.

The first was on a kickoff as Rontrez Morgan was hit from the side by SDSU's Kevin Brenner. Watching it live, I thought it was a hard, but legal hit. Brenner seemed to make shoulder-first contact with Morgan.

However, on review, Brenner was called for targeting and ejected. Why? The only review that was shown on the ESPN+ broadcast showed that Brenner did indeed lead with his shoulder, however, Morgan dropped his head down to shield himself just as Brenner made his approach and when he did? Brenner's head hit Morgan's.

Now, the way I read that is that, yes, there was helmet-to-helmet contact, but no, Brenner did not intend to make helmet-to-helmet contact. That level of reading intent is not in the rules, but common sense suggests that it ought to be. Brenner didn't deserve an ejection on that play.

Later in the second quarter, ISU receiver Phazione McClurge was on the wrong end of an almighty hit by SDSU safety Cale Reeder. This was a 1970s style Jack Tatum hit. It had intent, it was delivered with (football) violence. By anyone's standard, it was a hit that endangered the player.

However, the one distinction? Reeder didn't lead with his head. He did lead with his elbow and made contact with his shoulder.

On that technicality, he was not called for targeting. Mallory confirmed that's what he was told by officials after the review.

Even if you accept that Reeder led with his shoulder, and I don't entirely, because his elbow was up and extended, he still made contact around McClurge's head, enough to knock his helmet off. Certainly enough to endanger him.

On what Earth does it make any sense to make a distinction between whether it's helmet-to-helmet or shoulder-to-near-head? They both do similar damage. McClurge was quite a bit more defenseless than Morgan was on his hit. The potential for serious injury isn't dissimilar.

Also, and I saw this in another college football game later on Saturday, what about a situation where an offensive player lowers his helmet? I think it was the Indiana-Western Kentucky game where a ball carrier lowered his head and made helmet-to-helmet contact with a defender. How is that not a penalty?

In Morgan's case, lowering his head created the situation where Brenner was booted. It was boom-boom, Brenner had no time to lift, shouldn't there be some room for interpretation among officials to determine intent?

I just wish discretion was part of the rule. I have a much bigger issue with that part of targeting than the complaints about the disqualification that occurs when targeting is called. There needs to be teeth to targeting, but there also needs to be common sense.

- Around the MVFC, conference play has begun, though not for all. Four games were played. Northern Iowa, North Dakota and North Dakota State were idle.

The game of the day was in Youngstown where two teams picked to struggle in the MVFC - Western Illinois and YSU - squared off.

The Penguins led 35-7 at halftime at Stambaugh Stadium and it appeared the Leathernecks, who have been defensively-challenged to say the least, were on their way to 0-4 after letting the Penguins run roughshod over them.

However, WIU scored 31 unanswered points in the second half, and won a stunning 38-35 victory with a last-second field goal.

The 28-point deficit was the largest overcome in a MVFC conference game ... ever. WIU can put points on the board, that part of its comeback is no surprise, so perhaps the biggest shocker is that the 'Necks shutout the Penguins in the second half and held YSU to only 76 passing yards, though the 'Guins did have 298 rushing yards.

Elsewhere, Southern Illinois bumped off rival Illinois State 35-21 at SIU Stadium. The Salukis also went points-crazy in the second half, outscoring the Redbirds 35-7 after the break. This was a bit of a strange "revenge" game too. SIU was annoyed that Illinois State prematurely ended its spring season, costing SIU a game against the Redbirds.

In the MVFC nightcap, host Missouri State rallied to score 14 in the final period to get past ISU's opponent next week - South Dakota in a 31-23 win. Jason Shelley threw for 281 yards for the Bears.

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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.