Go big or go home.

Indiana State’s football team was going home regardless of its result against Missouri State on Saturday at Plaster Stadium, so it redefined going big in its season finale.

The Sycamores (5-7, 3-5) got the so-called “explosion plays” the team has lacked for most of its season – five plays that gained 40 yards or more – as ISU closed its football season on a high note with a 51-24 annihilation of Missouri State.

Dominique Dafney provided many of the fireworks. The senior wide receiver-turned-wildcat back had one of the greatest days in Indiana State history. Dafney rushed for 244 yards – the fourth-best game in school annals – and rushed for four touchdowns. Dafney also caught a TD pass. Dafney’s five touchdowns in a game were the most since Darrius Gates pulled off the handful of TDs in 2010.

“I was in a zone. I was finding holes and hitting them as hard as I could. I knew [the offensive line] move people for me up front. That puts confidence in my job. It makes my job simple,” Dafney said. “I couldn’t have planned it better to come out and dominate like we did.”

For Dafney, a transfer senior from Iowa, it was his last college football game. Few have ever finished with a bigger bang than he did.

“It means everything to me to go out there and show what I could do. Whether it’s receiver, running back, quarterback, whatever? A dude from Iowa can go down on the football field and I can do what I can do. The fact that they believed in me means everything,” said Dafney, fighting back tears.

Dafney’s day had teammates and ISU coach Curt Mallory buzzing.

“Dom … we welcomed him like a brother. He’s a true brother. We’ll do anything for him and him for us. To see him have that kind of game, it was beautiful. He’s family and always will be, so it was very nice to see,” Hendrix said.

“He came in with no strings attached. We wanted to win a championship and he wanted to play football. What a great player. He had a great effort today. I wish I had him another year,” Mallory said.

It wasn’t just Dafney who joined the big-play fun. Hendrix had a 70-yard catch that was one yard short of the end zone and a 70-yard punt return for a touchdown. Dafney’s wildcat partner – Michael Haupert – had a 49-yard touchdown run and threw the TD pass to Dafney.

ISU even had a 50-yard fumble return by Matt Thompson taken off the board, but the big plays were numerous and long overdue.

“I was talking to guys on the sideline and I was like, ‘Man, this is how we wanted it to go all season.’ It was a beautiful moment,” Hendrix said.

Dafney’s day began with a 26-yard run on ISU’s first offensive play of the game, a sign of things to come, but for a while, the Bears were in the game with the Sycamores.

ISU struck first with 3:42 left in the first quarter. Dafney and Haupert both lined up in the backfield – the “wildcats” formation ISU has used since late October – and ISU threw out of the formation. Haupert found Dafney wide-open over the middle for a 19-yard touchdown catch.

Then the big plays began to roll like thunder for the Sycamores. Hendrix caught a 70-yard pass over the middle from Kurtis Wilderman, it was initially ruled a TD, but Hendrix was down at the 1. Dafney scored to make it 14-0.

Missouri State countered with an 89-yard drive to cut ISU’s lead in half, but Hendrix wasn’t going to be denied. On a MSU punt with 1:29 left, Hendrix caught the ball in stride, weaved his way through several Bears tacklers, escaped the grasp of Missouri State punter Brendan Williams, and then tip-toed up the sideline for a 70-yard punt return touchdown.

MSU (1-10, 1-7) drove right back, but missed a field goal at the end of the first half as Hendrix’s touchdown gave ISU momentum and a 21-7 lead.

The third quarter was when the game broke for good. Dafney struck first with a 57-yard touchdown rolling left out of the wildcat. MSU did score in response to make it 28-14, but the Sycamores never stopped rolling.

A Jerry Nunez field goal and a 49-yard Haupert touchdown closed the quarter in style as ISU led 38-14.

The Sycamores never stopped. Dafney still had two more touchdown runs in him – a 41-yarder with 9:20 left and a one-yarder to cap the contest and bring his own day to a fitting crescendo.

“To finally get those explosive plays? It means everything to us. It will build to what they have coming back next year,” Dafney said.

Twenty-three Sycamores called it a day on their ISU careers. One of the best of them, linebacker Jonas Griffith, could reflect on a season that was short of the FCS playoff goal ISU sought, but also one in which ISU never mailed it in.

“It was a lot of emotion from everything you’ve put into the program. I wouldn’t trade anything. It’s been a blessing,” said Griffith, who became the third player in ISU history to have three straight seasons with 100 or more tackles. Marty Murray and Eric Christensen were the others.

ISU opens its 2020 season at Eastern Illinois next September. 

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.

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