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Oct. 8—When it comes to Indiana State football? There isn't a whole lot of statistical evidence to show anything good that's going on. That sad statistical story begins with ISU's 0-2 Missouri Valley Football Conference record and a minus-72 point differential in those two games.
To remedy what ails the Sycamores as they host Western Illinois at 1 p.m. on Saturday, ISU coach Curt Mallory turned to a trait that can't be obviously measured statistically — physical play.
"We need to be more physical as a team. That's 115 guys on this football team. We show some physicality at times, but as a team, we have to have more," Mallory said.
On each side of the ball, ISU (2-3, 0-2) has had two primary problems. Offensively, the Sycamores have not been able to run the ball, averaging a meager 2.8 yards per carry.
"I don't see us playing near as physical as we're capable. I go back to the 2018 team, it was a want-to. It wasn't an ability issue. Our offensive line is just as talented or more as 2018. Why aren't we getting the push? That's the challenge I put on them. It's a want-to. It's a choice if you want to play physical. At times we see it, but not near enough on a consistent basis," Mallory said.
ISU will have left tackle Carter Herrin back from injury. That means Isaiah Edwards could move back to left guard from the left tackle spot he played at South Dakota, though Edwards will still see some time out on the end.
Defensively, the numbers are a bit better, but when ISU is vulnerable, it's really vulnerable, and Mallory diagnoses the issue as poor tackling.
"We had opportunities to make tackles [in a 38-10 loss at South Dakota last week] and we got second and third guys there, but we have to do a better job of gang-tackling," Mallory said.
"We did more hitting in practice. We needed it. I saw a lot of guys leaving their feet and put their head down. Those aren't tough tackles. They are tough in the sense that they're hard to make. They're a 50/50 tackle when you leave their feet. They're dangerous and you're lucky if you even get them down," Mallory added.
Elsewhere, ISU isn't settled at the quarterback spot either. Mallory said it's possible that both Anthony Thompson and Kurtis Wilderman, the latter returned to practice this week after missing the South Dakota contest with an injured shoulder, could share time again. Cade Chambers, who played late in last Saturday's contest, got experience, while another quarterback, Gunnar See, is back after he injured his wrist in the preseason.
"We may use them both. Both Anthony and Kurt are tough kids. We'll see which gives us the best chance to win, if it's both or just one," Mallory said.
ISU still might not have wide receiver Dante Hendrix and wildcat quarterback Michael Haupert back. Both are questionable for Saturday's contest.
As for ISU's opponent — Western Illinois — they have only won one game, but they've been perhaps the most entertaining team in the MVFC. To say the Leathernecks are streaky on both sides of the ball is a gross understatement.
The Leathernecks' only resounding loss was a 42-7 defeat at Montana. WIU (1-4, 1-1) had a respectable 31-21 loss at Ball State to start the season. In WIU's most recent three games, it has been on a wild ride.
FCS No. 4 Eastern Washington visited WIU on Sept. 18 and barely survived the trip to Macomb. EWU had a 55-21 halftime lead, only to eek out a 62-56 win after WIU rolled up 35 points in the second half.
Similarly, WIU fell behind 35-7 at Youngstown State in its next game, only to make the biggest second-half comeback in MVFC history with a 38-35 triumph. Last week, FCS No. 8 Southern Illinois led 21-0 early in the second quarter, only to endure yet another WIU surge as the 'Necks outscored the Salukis 14-3 in the second half to force overtime. WIU lost only because it rolled the dice and went for a two-point conversion in overtime in a 31-30 defeat.
Offensively, WIU's traits are obvious. Quarterback Connor Sampson leads the best passing offense in the MVFC at a cool 300 yards per game. Sampson has 12 touchdown passes and has thrown for 1,412 yards to MVFC leading receiver Dennis Houston, who averages 124 yards per game on a Valley-leading eight receptions per game.
The WIU defense is more of a mystery. It's last in yards conceded at 469.2 per game, but has risen up in the second halves of the games against EWU, YSU and SIU, allowing only 17 points combined in the second halves and overtime of those contests. The Leathernecks are vulnerable on the ground, giving up 203.6 rushing yards per game, so ISU could have a chance to give its rushing attack a shot in the arm.
In WIU, you can see inconsistency. For Mallory, ISU has to eliminate some of theirs.
"When the defense does something well, the offense has to build on that. When the offense does something well, the defense has to compliment it. That hasn't been happening. That's been a huge emphasis," Mallory said.
Western Illinois at ISU
Time — 1 p.m. Saturday.
Place — Memorial Stadium.
Webstream — ESPN3.
Radio — WZJK-FM 105.5.
Records — WIU 1-4, 1-1 MVFC; ISU 2-3, 0-2.
Series — WIU leads 26-17.
Last meeting — ISU won 20-10 in 2019.
Last game — ISU lost to South Dakota 38-10 and Western Illinois lost 31-30 to Southern Illinois in overtime on Oct. 2.
Next — ISU plays at Missouri State and WIU hosts South Dakota State on Oct. 16.