McClurge TD

Screen capture by Todd Golden/Tribune-Star

The winner: Phazione McClurge catches a 24-yard touchdown at the goal line with no time left as Indiana State earned a dramatic 23-21 win at Eastern Kentucky on Saturday night.

Phazione McClurge catches at 24-yard touchdown pass from Kurtis Wilderman as Indiana State earns a dramatic 23-21 victory at Eastern Kentucky on Sept. 18, 2021. 

Indiana State quarterback Kurtis Wilderman and wide receiver Phazione McClurge not only saved Indiana State’s day with a 24-yard touchdown connection on the final play of the game for a dramatic 23-21 victory at Eastern Kentucky, but the pair did something else too.

They saved the Sycamores from themselves.

The prospect of a very bleak bus ride home with 49 seconds left – that was when the Colonels took the lead via a De’Joun Hewitt 4-yard touchdown run – became a joyous celebration as the Sycamores overcame plenty of self-inflicted wounds to win in the most dramatic manner possible with no time left on the Roy Kidd Stadium clock.

“You can’t even think. You just go blank,” said Wilderman on winning via the last pass of the game. “We’re so happy. There’s a lot of work that went into this and not just this week. We kept grinding, chipped away, and we came together.”

Until the dramatic ending, it appeared that ISU’s late first-half turnovers that either directly gave EKU points or took away potential scores from ISU, as well as a fourth-quarter missed field goal, would doom the Sycamores to a damaging road loss that would have carried it’s fair share of regrets.

Instead, ISU got a lifeline when the Colonels got a bit greedy trying to kill off the game.

After Hewitt’s touchdown, EKU tried to end proceedings with a surprise onside kick. The Colonels nearly recovered it too, but ISU’s Noah Ellison managed to haul the loose ball in after a scramble.

So instead of having to drive 75 yards or more to win the game, ISU had a much more manageable 49 yards to cover in 49 seconds with two timeouts left.

“It was nice. It was good field position with 49 seconds left, but we knew we had to push the ball down the field,” Wilderman said.

ISU moved the ball to the 24 and had one play left with 1 second left. After the teams traded timeouts, ISU coach Curt Mallory said he changed the intended play when he saw EKU’s defensive set.

“We had a play called and they lined up and we changed it. It was a great throw and a great catch. What a way to win,” Mallory said.

ISU stacked McClurge and Harry Van Dyne on the right side. The ran parallel post patterns. Wilderman saw something he liked.

“I saw the safety kind of push a little to the left, I saw a window, and I threw it where [McClurge] could go get it,” Wilderman said.

McClurge did not have it easy. Though he caught the ball cleanly at the goal line, he was upended by EKU safety John Blunt Jr. Then, his catch, called a touchdown on the field, had to pass muster on review.

“Kurt threw a great ball, I just had to make a play on it. Receivers are supposed to hold on to the ball,” said McClurge when asked about the hit he took.

Once reviewed confirmed the catch, the Sycamores (2-1) celebrated a crazy victory.

“We have a lot of great guys who work so hard, battling injuries, and us not playing for so long getting the big win? It was emotional,” McClurge said.

That Wilderman and McClurge were even in the game is a testament to their determination – and the problems ISU is having maintaining continuity in its lineup.

Wilderman replaced starting quarterback Anthony Thompson at halftime. McClurge, a Cornell transfer, has slowly played his way up the crowded, but banged up, wide receiver depth chart.

“In the last two weeks, Phazione has really shown me something because I’ve been on him and I’ve challenged him to be more consistent. In the last two weeks, he’s shown that,” Mallory said. “

The two players represent the current yin-and-yang of the Sycamores. Consistency has not been achieved by any of the units, though they also show signs of excellence too.

“It’s not there yet. We have to be a lot more consistent, but this team understands that it won, but it has a long way to go,” Mallory said.

The first half was even in score (14-14), big plays and mistakes by both teams.

The latter two factored in the first scoring play of the game. After both teams had struggled to move the ball, EKU (1-2) prepared to punt on its second series at its own 18. Punter Phillip Richards dropped the snap, which was accurate, and ISU swooped in. Richards was annihilated in the oncoming ISU rush and the ball came loose. Hunter Lunsford recovered the ball in the end zone and ISU had a gift of a 7-0 lead.

The Colonels recovered, however, and scored on their next series, a 10-play, 74-yard drive capped by a 10-yard Malik Owens touchdown on a fade route.

With both teams trying to establish rhythm, it appeared the Sycamores had found it with a solid scoring drive of their own. ISU marched 73 yards in eight plays – including a 52-yard catch by Rontrez Morgan, the longest pass thrown by Thompson as a Sycamore. McClurge finished the series off with a 10-yard catch to put ISU up 14-7.

Up until that point, Thompson had been steady, but that would change.

On ISU’s next series, Thompson threw his first interception of the season and it was a costly one. Under pressure, he tried to throw to the outside, but EKU cornerback lay in wait. He jumped the route and had nothing between him an a 16-yard pick-six that tied the game at 14 with 4:33 left in the half.

It wouldn’t be the last costly interception before halftime. ISU’s defense stuffed the Colonels inside their own 5 and the Sycamores got the ball back at the EKU 37 with 49 seconds. Perfect chance to score a touchdown, or bare minimum, a field goal right before halftime.

ISU would get neither. Thompson tried to throw a fade to Morgan in the end zone, but he was covered well, and EKU’s Joseph Sayles made a leaping grab and ISU’s scoring chance was wasted.

Enter Wilderman, but the teams remained barely separable in the third quarter too. Wilderman helmed a lengthy 15-play, 57-yard scoring drive that resulted in an Alan Selzer 32-yard field goal. ISU’s revival on that series had more to do with an improved running attack than passing. The Sycamores averaged 4.3 yards per carry on the series, including a 14-yard Zach Larkin fourth down conversion scamper.

Later, ISU’s defense held the Colonels on 4th-and-2 from the ISU 16 to keep the game from being deadlocked again.

But after Selzer missed a 34-yard field goal with 8:05 left, the Colonels got untracked. A 14-play, 80-yard drive that included two third down conversions was ended by Hewitt’s touchdown.

The degree of difficulty gets considerably more difficult when Missouri Valley Football Conference play begins next Saturday. FCS national runner-up South Dakota State visits Memorial Stadium as the Sycamores hit the MVFC running.

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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.