Down In The Valley: Western Illinois postmortem

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If you would have told me on Aug. 1 that a 10-point home win for Indiana State over winless Western Illinois was a thing, much less a thing that felt like it provided safe harbor for a struggling ISU team? I'd have thought you were crazy.

After all, the Sycamores were the preseason darlings of the Missouri Valley Football Conference. ISU was picked fourth in the MVFC preseason poll, was picked to tie for the conference crown by yours truly, and had everything laid out for them. A seven-game home schedule, no North Dakota State to provide a likely loss, and with a boatload of returning starters? This was ISU's year. This season had all of the markings of FCS playoff football.

I think we all know in the back of our minds that men plan and God laughs, but that doesn't make the reality of ISU's situation any easier to take.

I've had a few people tell me they feel let down by the 3-3 Sycamores ... and some of their disappointment is rooted in other ISU teams, football or otherwise, that have let them down in the past. 

That's life in the big city for a prominent college team, but every "disappointment" has to be judged on a case-by-case basis. In the case of ISU football? I think this season has to judged with a bit of empathy instead of criticism.

Think back to the factors that had observers optimistic about ISU in the first place.

The experienced offense? It has missed, at various times this season, running back Titus McCoy, running back Peterson Kerlegrand, wide receiver Rontrez Morgan, wide receiver Dakota Caton, left tackle Mason Flechler, left guard Isaiah Edwards, right tackle Kevin Kcehowski, and most important of all, quarterback Ryan Boyle.

The defense has been more healthy, but could be missing linebacker Jonas Griffith depending on what the status of his injured left knee turns out to be.

Injuries alone can any team's season, regardless of how good or deep they may be. Coaches and players like preach "next man up", but that's a rallying cry for their own benefit, as well as, just reality that has to be faced.

"Next man up" is the right approach within a team. "Next man up", however, is no way to assess a team from the outside looking in. There's simply no way anyone can objectively assess the Sycamores and conclude that they haven't been negatively impacted by injuries, no matter what they may say about it.

Now to be fair? The offense wasn't running at maximum when Boyle was healthy and ISU's defense gave up 35 points to non-scholarship Dayton in a loss that continues to sting and give the Sycamores no margin for error for the rest of the season as far as the FCS playoffs are concerned. We can't forgive all of the sins.

But even some of the ancillary criticisms that get levied against the Sycamores have their roots in the injuries.

The playbook, designed for Boyle and his dual threat ability to pass and run, is not as adaptable to either Kurtis Wilderman or Gunnar See, both of whom are more traditional quarterbacks. ISU's play-calling has come under criticism, including here, but it does take time to adjust the calls to different personnel on the field.

ISU's defense has been better more often than not. Saturday's revival against Western Illinois was a welcome development after the meltdown a week earlier at South Dakota.

Then again? WIU isn't exactly the 1984 49ers. We'll know the Sycamores have taken a step forward if it can slow down South Dakota State's potent offense next week.

So I chalk up most of the "disappointment" of ISU's season to circumstance more so than failure. If ISU was 3-3 with everyone healthy? That would be different. Then you'd have to question everything about the approach that was taken.

But ISU hasn't been healthy. Nothing about the season has played out as planned. 

ISU can still make something of its season, but in reality? It can probably only lose one more game to make the FCS playoffs. Two at most. That's a tall order in this league.

And if we're being brutally honest? As encouraging as ISU's fight back and togetherness was in rallying to a common cause was against WIU? ISU is going to have to be significantly better next Saturday to have a shot against No. 3 South Dakota State.

Can this group do it? We'll see. Last year, ISU rallied from a slow MVFC start to nearly make the FCS playoffs, but that was with nearly everyone of consequence healthy.

A similar fight-back doesn't seem like it should be in the cards based on how the Sycamores are presently constituted, but then again? ISU's 2019 season looks nothing like anyone thought it would on Aug. 1.

To quote "Lawrence Of Arabia", the first half of the season taught us that "nothing is written", good or bad. We'll see what kind of ride the second half of the season provides.

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