Todd Golden: DOWN IN THE VALLEY: Western Illinois postmortem

·13 min read

Oct. 11—Sometimes, when you look deeper into the numbers of a box score, you can find aberrations in wins and losses.

I don't know that there's a specific formula to assess such things. "Lucky" wins are usually predicated on damaging mistakes by the opposition, whether forced by the winning team or not. "Unlucky" losses, of course, are fueled by the same phenomenon.

Looking deeper into the box score of Indiana State's 37-27 win over Western Illinois, I didn't see much that would have fallen under the definition of a lucky win for the Sycamores. Nor was it an unlucky loss for the Leathernecks.

A sure way to assess the effectiveness of a team over 60 minutes is to look at possession stats. Now, here, we're getting into a zen thing about how to define performance.

Does consistency matter if you can damage a team with occasional big-play ability? Does it matter whether you get to 21 points on three scoring possessions with seven three-and-outs? This versus eight solid possessions out of 10 that move the sticks, but still yield the same number of points?

Me? I prefer consistency because it's a more sustainable and reliable method of moving the ball over the long haul and you can better control the clock. Maybe analytics that are geared solely towards the outcome would disagree, but so be it.

Anyway, I digress, because ISU actually got the best of both worlds on Saturday.

Big plays? ISU had them. Peterson Kerlegrand broke a 59-yard touchdown run and Phazione McClurge had an 88-yard touchdown catch, sprung by an impressive block by Daijon Collins.

ISU also had sustained drives. Five of ISU's 12 "true" drives (I'm not counting the final series which consisted of taking a knee) consisted of five or more plays.

Now, some of them led only to field goals, which isn't optimal, but to date, one of ISU's biggest problems has been an inability to control the clock and give itself flexibility in play-calling.

When you can't run, you're at the mercy of how good or bad the opposing pass defense and pass rush is. Not to mention how predictable it is to set a defense for an offense that can't run.

Perhaps Western Illinois's defense is just that bad and ISU finally caught an opponent they could take advantage of, but the push I saw from a revamped offensive line (Carter Herrin played right tackle and Isaiah Edwards stayed at left tackle) was something I hadn't seen in previous games.

In other words, ISU made their own good fortune and didn't just depend on WIU weakness.

The cascading effect of all of this is field position. ISU's average starting field position was its own 41. There have been other games where ISU struggled just to get to its own 41.

It's not as if there still aren't problems to solve. ISU's third down conversion rate is still way too low with a 2-for-10 performance on Saturday. Penalties were a scourge.

However, seven out of 12 "real" possessions led to points for ISU ... and one of the empty trips was a missed field goal. That's the kind of consistency ISU badly needs.

Defensively, the WIU possession stats aren't kind on the surface. The Leathernecks only punted three times in 13 possessions. WIU had five or more plays on 11 of its 13 possessions. Given those numbers, it would seem ISU was lucky to get away with WIU only scoring on four of those trips.

Perhaps, but the Sycamores made their own luck. Forcing a pair of turnovers helped the cause, but ISU was far more aggressive and created havoc for the Leathernecks.

ISU had six sacks, all in the first half, and had 10 quarterback hurries in addition. WIU quarterback Connor Sampson still managed to throw for 449 yards, a testament to his skill and ability to break containment, but he had to work for every one of those yards. Not every quarterback ISU faces is going to have a similar skill set.

WIU lost a total of 69 yards over the course of the game, so while they moved the ball, and did a bit too good on third down at 8 of 16 too, they were consistently faced with long down-and-distance situations.

It sounds weird and almost counter-intuitive to say, but their 15-yard gains were a matter of drive survival, and while that puts pressure on a defense in a sense, it's not the same kind of pressure as consistently getting 15-yard gains on first and second down.

Much of all of this goes hand-in-hand too. Since ISU was able to move the sticks and control field position, WIU was on the other side of the coin.

The 'Necks average starting position was its own 26, so while they out-gained ISU 477-445, many of their yards were making up ground instead of getting into scoring position.

What does this all mean going forward? We'll see. ISU won't see a defense as porous as WIU the rest of the season (nor will ISU's defense see a passing offense as prolific), but I saw a performance that rose above the weakness of the opposition.

In other words, ISU won the game because of what it did well, not necessarily what WIU didn't.

That's a good sign, and after two losses in which there was virtually nothing encouraging to go on, Sycamores fans should feel justified in feeling better about things.

A look at the game

—Passing game — The bigger deal than Anthony Thompson's numbers (15 of 21, 226 yards, 2 TD) was that he had the game-time to get settled down and get into a rhythm.

It's a still a limited repertoire — downfield passes are few and far between (remember, McClurge's 88-yard touchdown was a sort of bubble screen-ish play on the sideline) — but as long as the sticks keep moving, a short and medium-passing game works just fine.

Thompson didn't make any significant mistakes, though WIU came close to an interception when ISU couldn't afford one late.

Stability is nice. Thompson gave the Sycamores some.

—Running game — We wrote about most of this already. Kerlegrand averaged 10.5 yards per carry. Kerlegrand always runs hard. This week, he had the holes to do something with it.

Emerging as Kerlegrand's understudy is Derrick McLaughlin. He rushed for 19 and can run between the tackles like Kerlegrand can.

—Blocking — So much better than the other games in the season. As mentioned, Carter Herrin, who was back from injury, moved over to right tackle, which kept Isaiah Edwards at left tackle and put Jalen Booth in the right guard spot.

Much as the defense did, ISU's offensive line responded to Curt Mallory's public questioning of their physicality.

Pass protection-wise, Thompson was sacked twice and WIU only recorded one quarterback hurry, though it seemed like he was on the run a bit more than that.

A good day, but ISU has to hope it continues against a much-better Missouri State team next week.

—Pass rush — Awesome in the first half, six sacks being a testament to that.

The amazing thing about ISU's 10 quarterback hurries (sacks do not count in the total) is that those hurries were recorded by 10 different Sycamores representing all three pieces of the defensive unit. ISU did a great job of keeping the Leathernecks guessing where the pressure was coming from.

—Pass coverage — Sampson threw for 449 yards. Nothing good about that, but ISU's coverage did help lead to the sacks and hurries.

Mallory was pleased with J.J. Henderson's coverage on WIU star receiver Dennis Houston. The WIU star had 8 catches for 65 yards, but was never allowed to be a dangerous factor.

—Special teams — Selzer was most prominently featured, going 3-for-4 on his field goal attempts with a long of 35. His miss was from 37.

Punter Travis Reiner did well, averaging 43.5 yards per punt.

ISU's return teams were fine. Coverage wasn't a problem, other than a fair catch interference early in the game.

Observations — Mallory seemed confident that wide receiver Dante Hendrix and wildcat quarterback Michael Haupert might be back for the Missouri State game next Saturday.

Mallory said that both players wanted to play on Saturday, but that Mallory deferred to ISU's medical staff when it was decision time.

With those players back and some modicum of healthy, ISU's offense suddenly gets its versatility back. Hendrix stretches the field and makes life easier for his fellow receivers. Haupert's quickness makes the wildcat deadly. — The crowd on Saturday was 3,943. I haven't really focused much on crowds since the pandemic began for various reasons.

On one hand, I wasn't surprised by the low turnout given that ISU was not playing well in the run-up to the game.

On another hand, the weather was good (if a bit hot) and on paper, this was a winnable game.

The one thing I heard, for the umpteenth time in my time covering ISU in relation to the crowd size, was someone saying something along the lines of, "too bad the Covered Bridge Festival and cross country sectional were going on, etc ..." as an excuse for why attendance was low. Or Notre Dame was on TV, Rose-Hulman Homecoming, or some such thing.

Fill in the blank based on the supposed inconvenient date.

In college towns that are engaged in their teams, you hear those things to explain why festival or sectional attendance is down. "Too bad [fill in the blank local college team] had a home game or we'd have more people here."

I know. It's an eternal problem, but I've been hearing it for 17 years and I don't think it's a dynamic that's ever going to change as far as ISU football is concerned. — The fans who were there got a big laugh out of the official accidentally saying "Illinois State" instead of "Indiana State" on a penalty explanation.

Ha, ha! Well, everyone makes mistakes, and the bigger problem is that the official had to say "Indiana State", or any other I-state school, as many times as he did.

Mallory was irritated after the game about the Sycamores' 113 penalty yards and 13 total penalties.

Mallory said it was the worst penalty performance a team of his has had and he wasn't wrong. The only time ISU went over the century mark in penalty yards under Mallory was a 2019 home loss to Dayton.

The Leathernecks gained four first downs due to penalties. In a closer game? That could have been fatal. — WIU was underwater in rushing yardage for most of the game due to ISU's first-half sacks and their general preference for throwing the ball. The 'Necks only got above the zero mark late in the third quarter.

Given that, I spent much of the fourth quarter scouring ISU's online media guides to see what the school record was for least amount of rushing yards given up in a game.

WIU was sitting at 15 rushing yards going into the 'Necks last series, and given the deficit they had to overcome, it was unlikely there would be any rushing attempts going forward.

At that point, I had made it to the mid-1980s and found a 1986 game against Buffalo State (not the same school as current MAC school Buffalo) where ISU only gave up 21 rushing yards.

Shadowing me, Tom James was doing the same research at the behest of ISU sports information. The lowest he had found was a 27-yard rushing game at Southern Illinois in 2014.

Just as I found that Buffalo State game, Sampson broke out of ISU's pass rush and took off downfield. Thirteen yards later, he had put WIU over both my threshold and TJ's as WIU surged to 28 rushing yards.

Later on, TJ kept his research up while I stopped knowing the school record wasn't set. He found a 1981 game in which ISU allowed only one rushing yard against Illinois State.

Sacks weren't recorded in those days, so I don't know what factor they may have played. I do know Dan Maher was named Missouri Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Week for the contest. — Around the MVFC, some contenders got a bit of humble pie and others got their credentials validated.

Validation came to FCS No. 7 Southern Illinois. The Salukis went on the road and knocked off No. 2 South Dakota State 42-41 in overtime. SIU was down 14 in the fourth quarter, but scored via a Landon Lenoir touchdown pass with 34 seconds left to tie it.

SDSU scored a touchdown to open overtime and went for two, but didn't get it. SIU made it easy with its own TD and extra point to win it.

The Salukis are 3-0 in the MVFC now and have a key tiebreaker against the Jackrabbits. SIU also doesn't play North Dakota State this season. Salukis are in this title race for the long haul, it appears.

Nice to see a school outside of the usual Dakota State suspects in the mix for a league championship.

Brought down a notch was ISU's opponent next week — Missouri State. The Bears lost 41-33 to the previously-winless-in-the-MVFC Youngstown State Penguins.

Stambaugh Stadium witnessed 44 total points scored in the fourth quarter. The Bears tied the game early in the quarter, but TD runs of 22 and 60 yards by YSU running back Jaleel McLaughlin put the Penguins back on the good foot.

The Penguins rushed for 377 yards against the Bears, something for ISU to note next week. MSU QB Jason Shelley threw for 372 yards, something for ISU to note the other direction.

Sharing last place with Illinois State in the MVFC is North Dakota. The Fighting Hawks fell in the DakotaDome by a 20-13 count to South Dakota. UND is 0-2 in league play having hosted tough NDSU and a road game at USD. It doesn't get easier for UND this week as they play at Southern Illinois.

NDSU got pushed by Northern Iowa for a half before the Bison pulled away for a 34-20 win at the Fargodome.

UNI actually out-gained NDSU 381-363, but the Bison took advantage of a big Jayden Price punt return and a UNI fumble to get short third-quarter drives to pull away.

SIU currently has a half-game lead over NDSU for MVFC supremacy. Missouri State and South Dakota are 2-1. SDSU and UNI are 1-1. ISU, WIU and YSU are 1-2. Illinois State and North Dakota form the MVFC caboose at 0-2.

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