DOWN IN THE VALLEY: Eastern Illinois postmortem | Sports

DOWN IN THE VALLEY: Eastern Illinois postmortem | Sports

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We’re back! As the football players were so fond of pointing out, it’s been 644 days since Indiana State’s last game.

That means it’s been about 644 days since the last football-related Down In The Valley. Dominique Dafney starred in that edition, and since then, he’s plied his trade for the Green Bay Packers.

Those 644 days offer plenty of chance for reflection, and thankfulness, that football has returned. Things are far from perfect on the COVID-19 front, the Delta variant and too many folks not doing the right thing to get vaccinated and/or wear a mask, have seen to that. 

Still, we’re in a better place than we were a year ago. Vaccinations have allowed us to play and to have a decent crowd on Saturday. If Delta tails off after its peak like it has in other places it’s already peaked, we should (hopefully) have some sense of normal once it does.

So with those platitudes out of the way, let’s talk turkey. The most ready-made excuse in the history of ready-made excuses would be to blame some of ISU’s problems on Saturday on two years of rust.

To be fair, no one involved with ISU was using that excuse. ISU coach Curt Mallory said that ISU left plays on the field. ISU wide receiver Dante Hendrix said ISU needed to be more consistent offensively.

And it’s not as if rust isn’t a partially valid excuse. ISU often looked like a team that hadn’t played in 644 days.

Problem is? None of that matters. ISU has an 11-game schedule. During 11-game FCS seasons, there is no margin for error as far as harboring playoff hopes are concerned and no one is going to feel sorry for a team that is slow out of the gate, regardless of how valid their excuse might be for having rust.

While no one outside of ISU’s program has predicted playoff contention, certainly, the players have it as a goal to start every season. A loss to an Eastern Illinois team that has only won twice in two seasons probably would have ended any playoff aspirations in the crib.

ISU avoided that nightmare scenario, but only just, and certainly, there’s a lot for the Sycamores to improve on.

Luckily, they do have playmakers who can make things happen. Michael Haupert and Michael Thomas made big, big plays on the offensive and defensive side, respectively, in the second half. Their second half touchdowns proved to be just enough.

If you want to add special teams into the mix, punter Travis Reiner drilled a 49-yard punt under heavy pressure in the final minute and pinned the Panthers into what ultimately resulted in a safety.

The thing that concerns me is that “just enough” won’t cut it as the season goes along. Though EIU showed quite a bit of toughness, and quarterback Otto Kuhns was pretty impressive, on paper, they are arguably the weakest team ISU will play this season.

So “just enough” will likely not be enough against the Missouri Valley Football Conference foes. A 3-for-14 performance on third down and five, count ’em, five pass interference penalties will be much more harshly punished.

The good news is ISU has some time, two weeks until the next game, and now has film evidence of what it really is. 

There’s work to be done, and that must be done, but the margin for error wasn’t given up on Saturday. ISU can get better, should get better, but can do so without the pressure a loss would have put on them.

Because rust or not? This was a game ISU had to win to have a successful season.

A look at the game

Passing game – Like most, I was most curious to see how Northern Illinois transfer Anthony Thompson handled his first start.

At first, it was a wild success. ISU called several quick-release throws to the left sideline, favoring Thompson’s left hand. Included were four such passes to start the game. It was a good plan as Thompson completed his first five passes and seven of his first eight to get into a nice rhythm.

However, once ISU stretched the definition of its passing game, Thompson fell off. He missed on first couple of intermediate throws before he found Hendrix for a decent gain.

He also threw long on his first three deep throws (though the final one was barely long and Hendrix was likely the victim of an uncalled pass interference), before throwing short on a pass interference that was called. There were at least two throws that probably should have been EIU interceptions, but they were dropped.

After that 7 of 8 start, Thompson was 6 of 15 and, in total, he only threw for 87 yards.

Not all of it was Thompson’s fault. There was one dropped third down conversion pass.

One thing I think he did pretty well was not get flustered in the pocket. Thompson can run, but he never ran needlessly on Saturday. He hung in there unless the play was completely unsalvageable.

All in all, a so-so debut for Thompson. 

No one else threw a pass. Kurtis Wilderman made a cameo on one play. Michael Haupert and one-play Wildcat QB Zach Larkin kept the ball on the ground. Watch out, though. Haupert is going to throw one of the Wildcat at some point.

Morgan and Hendrix ended up being the only two receivers who caught a pass, though several others were targeted. Nice that college football at our level is keeping that stat now.

Running game – ISU rushed for 158 yards and averaged 4.8 yards per carry. Not bad, but also, a bit misleading.

Take out Haupert’s 44-yard touchdown down and the average drops to 3.5 per carry. Still not bad, but probably a more accurate reflection of ISU’s ground prowess, especially from its running backs.

Peterson Kerlegrand gained 73 yards and scored a TD. He started well and then faded a tad. He also fumbled once, but was saved by being down by contact.

Matt Sora gained 15 yards on two carries and Justin Dinka made a cameo too.

Blocking – Not bad. EIU never had a sack, although part of that was the quick-hitters that ISU was throwing. I thought tackles Carter Herrin and Joel Stevens did a good job keeping EIU pass rushers in check.

Run-blocking-wise, there is the aforementioned 4.8 yards per carry.

If there’s a complaint, it’s that ISU’s front line couldn’t get consistent push on the third-and-short conversions ISU didn’t get, but all in all, a decent start in the trenches.

Pass rush – Inoke Moala started the game with a sack on the first series and forced a safety (arguably should have had a sack) on the final one. Moala had two of ISU’s five sacks and looked every bit the part of the sixth-year senior he is.

Kaleb Brewer also looked good as did Henrik Barndt. When ISU brings the pressure, it does so with all seven up front. ISU did consistently apply pressure to Kuhns, though he deserves credit for reading it, stepping up in the pocket, and making plays on the run.

Run defense – The stats suggest it was good. EIU averaged 3.1 yards per carry, but that average includes the five sacks, and ISU’s good stretches were mostly in the first and fourth quarters.

At the first quarter break, EIU was at minus-5 yards rushing on eight carries. But in the second quarter, the Panthers averaged 6.4 yards. In the third quarter, the average dropped, but was still a healthy 5.1 yards. In the final quarter, ISU buckled down again to the tune of 2.2 yards, though that total includes sacks. EIU’s running backs were still at 4.6 yards.

That was the average for EIU’s running backs for the game too. Mallory and Michael Thomas did say after the game they were disappointed in ISU’s tackling. Perhaps that 4.6 for EIU’s backs is where the lament on tackling is most obviously noted.

Pass coverage – Five pass interference penalties? Yikes. All of them were pretty legit too, including two in the end zone. There was some question whether the first on Mekhi Ware was an uncatchable ball on a desperation, against-the-grain heave by Kuhns, but Ware hooked the helmet, and if it wasn’t P.I. than it was likely holding.

EIU was good at taking advantage of the time Kuhns was affording the receivers to get open when he stepped up in the pocket. Many of his completions were deep into his checkdowns.

But apart from Thomas, it wasn’t a banner day for the ISU secondary.

Special teams – Reiner averaged 37.9 yards on seven punts. He mildly shanked one and got unlucky on a bounce on another, but his final punt, with EIU bringing the house, was a corker and very much needed.

New placekicker Alan Selzer came flying out of the gate with a 48-yard field goal, but later missed a 40-yarder. Brayden Johnson handled kickoffs and had one touchback.

Not a lot for the returners to do, though Haupert averaged 25 yards per kick return.

Observations

— So what’s up with ISU’s third downs? Let’s look at them and see if there’s a pattern.

1. 3rd-and-3 at EIU 30, first series: Thompson gains two yards, but ISU bails itself out on 4th down when Larkin makes his Wildcat cameo and gains two yards.

2. 3rd-and-5, ISU 16, second series: Converted. Thompson hits Hendrix for 7 yards on another sideline route.

3. 3rd-and-4, ISU 29, second series: Intended pass to Morgan was incomplete as Thompson was hurried into a quick throw that was nearly intercepted.

4. 3rd-and-2, EIU 40, third series: Converted. Kerlegrand gains seven yards.

So far, so good. ISU is 2-for-4 so far, and converted a fourth down on one of the third downs it didn’t get, but it would go south from here.

5. 3rd-and-7, EIU 30, third series: Incomplete pass to Daijon Collins.

6. 3rd-and-6, ISU 37, fourth series: Thompson gains five before he’s driven out of bounds. Again, ISU bails it out with a fourth down conversion as Thompson gets two on 4th-and-1.

7. 3rd-and-8, ISU 46, fourth series: Thompson overthrows Noah Ellison on a deep route.

8. 3rd-and-2, ISU 35, fifth series: This one hurt. Thompson threw a swing pass to Kerlegrand, who was wide open on the right. The pass was fine, but Kerlegrand dropped it. Should have been converted.

9. 3rd-and-2, EIU 19, sixth and final first half series: After Michael Thomas got an interception, ISU sent Thompson left, but EIU read it, and knocked Thompson for a two-yard loss. ISU then missed the field goal.

9x. 3rd-and-4, ISU 41, first series of second half: Doesn’t count as a third down anything, but Thompson underthrows Hendrix on a deep sideline route. However, pass interference is called and ISU gains a first down via penalty. (Which, statistically, doesn’t count as a third down conversion.) Honestly thought the play before that to Hendrix was more likely pass interference than that play was, but it evened out in the end, I suppose.

10. 3rd-and-1, ISU 34, second series of second half: Kerlegrand is hit at the line and gets no gain.

11. 3rd-and-3, ISU 14, third series of second half: Converted. Hendrix makes a 7-yard catch.

12. 3rd-and-7, ISU 24, third series of second half: Thompson completes a sideline route to Morgan, but he runs out of real estate on the sideline, and gains only four.

13. 3rd-and-8, ISU 30, fourth series of second half: It was originally a 3rd-and-3, but a false start penalty sent ISU backwards, and then Thompson gained nothing.

14. 3rd-and-8, ISU 44, final ISU series: Kerlegrand made a nice effort, but could only gain five on the ground when ISU needed eight. It was the right call, though, given that ISU’s main mission was to eat the clock as EIU had no timeouts left.

So what to make of this? The third-and-short failures have to be fixed. Is it blocking or play-calling? I lean more towards blocking. ISU’s offensive line can’t get over-powered in short yardage situations and they were a couple of times. The calls were fine, if a bit conservative, but if ISU executes and moves the pile, there’s not even a shred of argument.

ISU was also victimized by some mistakes – both on the part of Thompson and by his receivers – and some of these third down failures were mitigated by fourth down successes.

I don’t think there’s a pattern here, apart from several different things that need to be cleaned up that add up to the singular issue of a low third down conversion rate.

— Someone is going to have to explain to me how the officials missed an obvious safety on EIU’s last series. The Panthers held in the end zone, and it wasn’t like the holding occurred on the goal line, it was in deep blue, as in, a few yards into the end zone.

The officials saw the holding, but bizarrely, just walked off half-the-distance. That was a dead-to-rights safety all day, all night.

Ultimately, ISU got its safety anyway when Kuhns threw the ball to no one under pressure in the end zone.

Still, there’s no way the original safety should have been missed.

— No major injuries that anyone was aware of at the end of the game. Several players went down due to cramps and Ware and Hendrix both were dinged up, but there was nothing obvious, and Mallory didn’t note any major injuries either.

Hard to blame anyone for cramps. It was unpleasantly hot and humid, even after the sun went down.

— Two years off and Week Zero exclusivity? Perhaps attendance might be up, but the announced total was 5,540.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t pay much attention to the crowd. I was too busy getting re-acclimated back into football mode myself. It had been so long since I covered a college football game that when EIU had a fair catch on the opening kickoff? I momentarily forgot that put the ball at the 25.



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