Indiana State’s football team has built up a lot of goodwill in the wake of its near-miss playoff run a year ago.
With seven home games, an extremely experienced offense and playmakers on defense, the 14th-ranked Sycamores were expected to take a leap forward in 2019.
However, ISU shockingly tripped over its first FCS hurdle on Saturday. Dayton, a non-scholarship program that plays in the Pioneer Football League, had the Sycamores on the back foot for most of the game.
ISU managed to tie the game in the fourth quarter, but a 13-yard touchdown by Flyers running back Sean Prophit with 1 minute, 57 seconds left and then an interception by Dayton’s Zach Rumpke with 27 seconds left condemned ISU to a 42-35 loss few saw coming.
Needless to say, the Sycamores were surprised and disappointed they are staring down an 0-2 record to start the season.
“It shouldn’t have happened. We got outplayed,” ISU quarterback Ryan Boyle said.
The loss was ISU’s first against a Pioneer League team since the league was formed in 1991. ISU has lost to Dayton and other Pioneer teams before the league’s formation, but not since any of the members became non-scholarship programs when the NCAA changed the divisional rules in the early 1990s.
The Sycamores’ problems were numerous, but Dayton’s near-flawless effort was first and foremost in ISU’s demise. Dayton quarterback Jack Cook completed 21 of 29 passes for 251 yards and two touchdowns. His primary target was tight end Adam Trautman, who had 11 catches for 132 yards. Dayton only turned the ball over once – and that play turned into a negative for the Sycamores when Jonas Griffith fumbled after the pick and Dayton recovered for a net gain.
Though ISU outgained Dayton 505-427 in total offense, the Flyers were more consistent. ISU also had nine penalties and 104 penalty yards.
“I wasn’t blowing smoke up anyone’s you-know-what when I said it was going to be our biggest challenge this year,” ISU coach Curt Mallory said. “We had a tremendous amount of respect.
“Their tight end isn’t a good player, he’s a great player. The quarterback reminds me of Ryan Boyle and Ryan Boyle is a great player. They were smart and well-coached.”
ISU’s offense was stout at times. Running back Peterson Kerlegrand rushed for a career-high 194 yards and two touchdowns. Boyle rushed for 103 yards. Chris Childers had two touchdown runs. But the Sycamores weren’t consistent. ISU tended to score in bunches, but also had long stretches of little productivity.
It started well for the Sycamores. ISU had four plays that gained double-digit yardage on the opening series, capped by a 14-yard Kerlegrand touchdown run. All seemed well with a 7-0 lead.
It was not. Dayton would demonstrate its intent on the ensuing kickoff as Jake Chisholm returned it 43 yards. From that moment? The Flyers had the measure of the first half. Seven plays later, Prophit scored a three-yard touchdown to tie the game.
The Flyers didn’t let up. Touchdown catches by Prophit and Andrew Holderer gave the Flyers a 21-7 lead by the 3:55 mark of the second quarter. Cook was masterful at Dayton’s read-option runs (52 rushing yards) and the Flyers continually put receivers like Trautman in positions to make easy catches.
“They kept us guessing. We were in the right position to make some plays, but we didn’t make the plays,” Griffith said.
Dayton was threatening to take a 28-7 before halftime when ISU revived itself. Griffith knocked down a Cook pass at the line to force a punt that gave ISU the ball at its own 5 with 54 seconds left in the half. Kerlegrand immediately ripped off a 60-yard run and Dante Hendrix caught a 6-yard touchdown with 5 seconds left to help ISU cut its deficit to 21-14 at halftime.
Momentum gained? It seemed that way. ISU’s defense forced a three-and-out to start the second half and the Sycamores tied the game via a 1-yard Childers touchdown with 11:15 left.
Dayton was nonplussed. The Flyers immediately responded with another long kick return and Cook later scored from three yards out to restore the Flyers’ lead. Dayton built the advantage back to 14 when Cook scored on a perfectly-executed 9-yard read-option with 4:14 left.
Once again, ISU punched back. Kerlegrand scored via a 19-yard run on the first play of the fourth quarter and Childers tied the game at 35 with 10:53 left.
Plenty of time for either team to grab the game by the throat. It was Dayton that did so.
With 6:32 left, Dayton got the ball after a three-and-out by the Sycamores. The Flyers marched 85 yards in 10 plays, bleeding 4 minutes, 35 seconds off the clock, despite being forced into only one third down on the drive. Prophit’s go-ahead touchdown came off right tackle as he fought through ISU tacklers at the goal line to give Dayton a 42-35 lead.
ISU drove quickly into Dayton territory, converting a 4th-and-1 along the way, but disaster struck with 27 seconds left. Boyle tried to complete a pass on the right sideline, but Rumpke snared an under-thrown ball to clinch the Flyers win. Dayton’s celebration was so boisterous the entire team was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, a price worth paying.
“It was a simple vertical route and I didn’t put enough air in the ball,” said Boyle, who also spoke about interceptions generally. “I can’t throw two interceptions. It’s unacceptable. It puts pressure on the defense and they’re already fighting as best they can.”
ISU won’t have time to lick its wounds. Eastern Kentucky, picked third in the Ohio Valley Conference, comes to Memorial Stadium next Saturday.
Mallory is determined to make sure ISU learns the correct lessons from a bitter defeat.
“I believe in this football team. Last year, we were 2-4 and no one gave us a chance to win five in a row. Ultimately, it’s the same group of guys back. There’s no panic or pointing fingers. We’ll come together and I told the team that there’s no one to blame but me. I don’t want a single guy taking the blame: bottom line,” Mallory said.