Indiana State's football team isn't playing for anything at Missouri State at 3 p.m. Saturday other than pride, a good send-off for 23 seniors, moving a skosh closer to .500, and to distance themselves further from the Missouri Valley Football Conference cellar.
This isn't what was in the script to start the season, but then again, virtually nothing has gone according to plan for the Sycamores in 2019.
Back in August, when optimism ran high, no one expected ISU's starting quarterback, starting left guard, starting running back, one of its starting receivers, and one of its best linebackers to miss most or part of the season.
All of the above helped steer the Sycamores off the planned route of playoff-qualifying highway, and on top of that, there have been some areas of expected production that weren't as productive as expected and not enough surprises elsewhere to counter-act the effect.
Now ISU (4-7, 2-5) is playing down to a bit of an anti-climax, though certainly, ISU coach Curt Mallory knows that while the playoffs aren't on the line, no player wants to go out with a whimper.
"It comes to a realization it's almost over. You go through it last week the last time you play at Memorial Stadium and I started having the 23 seniors give their message last week and how fast it goes," Mallory said.
It helps that ISU comes off of two games that at least hinted of the team's potential in 2019. A 17-9 loss at Northern Iowa and a 24-17 win over Youngstown State that ended a four-game losing streak.
"We've seen improvement with this football team. To get the W certainly helps because they've been working hard. There's no secret we've hurt ourselves with penalties at critical moments and turnovers, but as far as the attitude, and we've had a great week this week," Mallory said.
What's something else ISU fans can hang their hats on in the finale? One fact might be hard to believe given the relative fortunes of the programs in the 2010s — none of ISU's current players have beaten Missouri State. ISU has not beaten the Bears since a 56-28 whooping delivered to MSU at Plaster Stadium in 2015. Some current players were redshirts in 2015, but none played in the game.
The ISU-MSU series is an exceptionally weird anomaly. ISU has finished ahead of Missouri State in the MVFC standings six times in the 2010s and tied the Bears once. Yet, in the same span? ISU is just 5-4 against Missouri State and winless since Mallory took over for the 2017 season.
Missouri State (1-9, 1-6) has won just one MVFC game — an overtime victory at Western Illinois at the start of the MVFC slate — but the Bears have risen up at times. They were competitive in a loss at North Dakota State — more so than some of their conference brethren — and Missouri State was within a failed series inside the 10 last week of beating Illinois State on the road.
"We did not perform well the last time we were there [a 59-20 loss in 2017] and last year, it went back-and-forth. They finished it [a 29-26 win for MSU] and we didn't. These guys are aware they haven't beaten them," Mallory said. "They really smack you. They fly around and they'll hit you. Offensively, it being able to control the quarterback [Peyton Huslig], who is elusive, and their wide receivers are all 6-4, 205 guys. We haven't faced a group of wideouts this talented yet."
Huslig is third in MVFC games at 193.3 passing yards per game. Tyler Currie, Lorenzo Thomas and Damoriea Wade are all in the top 10 in MVFC-only receptions per game. Despite that, MSU is last in MVFC scoring offense at 13.3 points.
Mallory wants a win over Missouri State to be a springboard for 2020, but that doesn't mean he'll experiment and plug in young players to see what they can do — a tactic used in the past in season finales that had nothing riding on them.
Mallory noted that Kurtis Wilderman will start at quarterback, though Gunnar See is also available. He wants the current group to be able to finish things off in their own way.
"We're going to stay with what we got. What's most important is now and we want to finish this the right way. We play a lot of guys anyhow. We want to finish 2-0," Mallory said.
Injury-wise, left tackle Mason Flechler will miss the game, but the Sycamores are otherwise healthy.
ISU at Missouri State
Time, place — 3 p.m. today at Plaster Stadium, Springfield, Mo.
Radio — WIBQ-FM 97.9.
Web — ESPN+.
Records — ISU 4-7, 2-5, MSU 1-9, 1-6.
Last games — ISU beat Youngstown State 24-17 and MSU lost 17-12 at Illinois State.
Series — MSU leads 20-13.
Last meeting — ISU lost 29-26 at home last season. ISU has not beaten MSU since 2015.
Next — Season concludes for both programs.