Sycamores make first trip to the postseason since 1984 — and learn some lessons, important both on and off the gridiron, along the way.
It all started in a coaches meeting shortly after the Sycamores had wrapped up a difficult, and at sometimes trying, 2013 season that ended with a 1-11 overall record. During this time together, head coach Mike Sanford identified one main area that needed immediate improvement during the off-season.
From the top to the bottom, a concerted effort to improve the leadership among the student-athletes was made. A group of potential leaders was identified to attend a class called Leadership 101. The course began before spring football practice and continued through early May. During each class, a guest speaker would share with the group what makes a good leader. They also instructed the group on what not to do.
In the final “class” of Leadership 101, Sanford led a discussion of what the group would stand for and what they wouldn’t tolerate during off-season preparations and during the 2014 campaign. The members of the class became the team’s Leadership Council and set out on a mission to turn the program back to the excitement of winning in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. There is no doubt that in looking back on the 2014 campaign the verdict was … Mission Accomplished.
Enthused with an eager leadership council, as well as a senior quarterback, an All-American linebacker and talented bunch of newcomers, the Sycamores embarked on a journey, which ended with an 8-6 record — the most wins for the program in 29 seasons of MVFC play. Indiana State received an at-large berth in the FCS Playoffs — making their first trip to the postseason since 1984 and in late November defeated Eastern Kentucky 36-16 to secure the program’s first postseason win since 1983. The run ended at No. 8 Chattanooga on December 6, which marked the latest game in the history of Sycamore football.
They did it with the play of senior quarterback Mike Perish. A second-team All-MVFC performer, Perish wrapped his career with the school record for pass completions (620), attempts (1,051), yards (6,696) and touchdowns (45). He also owns the single-season record for pass completions, attempts, yards and total offense. His 75-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Johnson also set the new school record for touchdown passes in a season with 21.
On defense, junior linebacker Connor Underwood was named a First Team All-MVFC performer and picked up First Team All-American honors from The Sports Network as well as Second Team All-American plaudits from the Associated Press. He finished the season with 94 total tackles, including new school records for quarterback sacks with 13.5 and tackles for loss with 25. He also now owns the school record for career quarterback sacks with 28.5 and is just two away from Kyle Mitchell’s standard for tackles for a loss with 52.5. Underwood finished 22nd in the MVFC for tackles per game with 6.7, third in sacks and second in tackles for a loss. His four fumbles forced led the team as well as the league.
In total, eight different Sycamores were named all-conference, three were listed as academic all-conference and three more were named to the MVFC All-Newcomer team. Indiana State’s turnaround from 1-11 to 8-6 proved to be the biggest win/loss improvement of any team in college football.
As for the man that led the organization of the Leadership 101 class and helped build the roster for success? Second-year head coach Mike Sanford was named the American Football Coaches Association of America Regional Coach of the Year. The AFCA National Coach of the Year honor will be awarded this month.
The Sycamores picked up their first victory of the season when they defeated Tennessee Tech, 49-14, in the home opener at Memorial Stadium. Perish finished the game 26-of-34, passing for 383 yards and four touchdowns. Junior wide receiver Gary Owens tallied six receptions for 199 yards and a touchdown. It was the most receiving yards in one game by a Sycamore since 1986.
The Tennessee Tech win, as well as a close loss to an Indiana team, which defeated Southeastern Conference East Division Champion Missouri had piqued the interest of the Sycamore faithful. A 27-20 road victory at FBS Ball State improved the Sycamores to 2-1 on the season and really got the fan base energized. Perish went more than 300 yards passing again and Underwood made a defensive stop on the game’s final play, as the Sycamores won the Victory Bell back from the Cardinals for the first time since 1987.
Following an open week, the Sycamores returned home to begin a stretch of five consecutive games against nationally ranked opponents. No. 22/23 Liberty invaded Memorial Stadium but was turned away by a 38-19 Sycamore victory. Then on Oct. 4, No. 10 Northern Iowa came to town. Indiana State turned away the Panthers, as well with a 20-19 victory, which ended in thrilling fashion as UNI missed a last-second field goal attempt and sent the Sycamore faithful into jubilation.
Standing at 4-1, No. 15 Illinois State came to town for the annual Homecoming contest. The Sycamores rallied from a 17-6 fourth quarter deficit, but the Redbirds came back over the top with a last second field goal for a 20-18 loss. The following week, the Sycamores travelled to No. 1 North Dakota State and fell 34-17. It was a tough two-game stretch for the Sycamores, as both the Redbirds and Bison shared the Missouri Valley Football Conference crown and are playing in January for the FCS Championship.
That’s when a flashback occurred. The Leadership Council went to work and rallied the troops. The team reviewed its list of goals and made sure everyone was living up to the standards of Sycamore football success. They then bussed to Carbondale, Ill., on Oct. 25 and walked away with a 41-26 victory. A key member of the Leadership Council, Perish threw four touchdown passes and was named the MVFC Offensive Player of the Week.
On Nov. 1, Missouri State came to town and gave the Sycamores a real battle. Eric Heidorn thought he had hit the game-winning field goal late, but the Bears trumped his effort with less than a minute on the clock to retake the lead. Sanford and his coaching staff reached into a deep bag of tricks and ran a hidden ball play on the ensuing kickoff, which got Indiana State into Missouri State territory. Redshirt freshman Aaron Killebrew, the fastest player of the team, emerged from a circle of Sycamores, eluded one tackler and was off to the races. The play set up the true game-winner from Heidorn for the 20-18 win, went viral on YouTube with nearly two million views and was ranked the No. 3 Play of the Day by ESPN’s SportsCenter.
No. 22 South Dakota State took care of Indiana State, 32-17, on Nov. 8 in what would be the final home game of the season. At 6-4, the Sycamore felt like they needed to win each of their final two road games to reach their goal of the FCS Playoffs. In overtime at No. 15/16 Youngstown State on Nov. 15, Mark Sewall tipped a Penguin pass and intercepted the ball to stop their drive. Heidorn then made a short field goal four plays later for the Sycamores’ seventh win. Sewall was named the National Defensive Player of the Week.
Then disaster struck. Ranked No. 18 in both national polls, the Sycamores dropped their regular season finale by the score of 34-20 to a five-win Western Illinois team. They then had to hope that their 7-5 record would be enough for an at-large berth into the playoffs.
When you dive deep into that 7-5 mark, the Sycamores owned a FBS victory plus four other wins over nationally ranked foes. They had the nation’s toughest strength of schedule and the four wins over ranked teams were only equaled by North Dakota State and Illinois State. The team gathered in the locker room with all eyes on the FCS Playoff Selection Show. It was with great relief that the Sycamores received another chance with a date at Eastern Kentucky on Nov. 29.
Indiana State battled the wind and a turnover to fall behind, 16-0, to No. 16/18 EKU. They scored a touchdown after converting a fourth down late in the second half. The Sycamores took the wind in the third quarter and the team went to work. Indiana State would score 24 points in the third period, including a back-breaking 48-yard interception return for a touchdown for Sewall en route to a 36-16 win.
While the season ended on Dec. 6 at No. 8 Chattanooga, the glimmer of a wonderfully successful season was not tainted. Indiana State ended with five wins against nationally-ranked foes and owned one of the biggest turnover margin advantages in the nation.
Just weeks after the season ended, the Sycamores already had an eye on the future. Three student-athletes, including a quarterback who began his career at California, had signed to join the program this next year. Most of the Leadership Council returns, as do 10 starters on a Sycamore defense, which created havoc all season on opposing offenses.
The work isn’t over. The goal of a Missouri Valley Football Conference Championship and a berth into the FCS Championship Game are next on the Sycamores’ plate. It all begins again on September 5 when the Sycamores host Butler inside Memorial Stadium. There are six games on the home slate in 2015, including a visit from North Dakota State on Oct. 24.
The Sycamores are hungry to keep the success going. Make your plans now to join Indiana State Football in 2015, as they look to take care of some unfinished business.