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Victory slips away late as Sycamores fall 22-20 in season opener vs. Eastern Illinois

by | Sep 1, 2017 | Football Blogs, Headlines, RRSN News | 0 comments

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. – Despite a superb game by the Sycamore defense and a productive day on the ground offensively, Eastern Illinois was able to best ISU on a fast and efficient final drive to win 22-20 on a last-second touchdown under the lights at Memorial Stadium on Thursday night.

After stymying the Panthers (1-0) most of the night and keeping the game within check, the Sycamores (0-1) had no answer on a furious final EIU drive that went 69 yards in 11 plays and 1:52 – ending with a 15-yard TD pass from QB Mitch Kimble (27-of-44, 204 yards, 1 TD) to Dennis Turner for the go-ahead score with just three seconds remaining in the game.

The Curt Mallory era at Indiana State (0-1) started off with a bang, though, following a sack on the first play of the game by seniors Jordan Jackson (eight tackles) and Norvell McGlaun (six tackles) to yield a forceful three-and-out to begin the game. The Sycamore offense, meanwhile, began their season on a 24-yard rush by redshirt senior LeMonte Booker – competing in his first game since the 2015 season. ISU marched 64 yards down the field in 3:49 to strike first, ending with an eight-yard TD strike from starting QB Isaac Harker to Booker.

Eastern responded in kind with a 10-play, 75-yard drive of their own to tie the game 7-7, but then the Panthers took early control of the game by picking off a Harker pass and returning it 73 yards for a touchdown to give EIU a 13-7 lead (following a missed PAT) with 4:42 still to play in just the first quarter.

What followed was a back-and-forth slugfest with key stops on both sides for the remainder of the half, ending with ISU holding the Panthers to a field goal as the half expired to give EIU a 16-7 lead. The Sycamore defense flexed its muscle several times throughout Thursday night and had several key performances, such as 13 tackles apiece by Jonas Griffith (1.0 TFL, 0.5 sack) and Katrell Moss (1.5 TFL).

With the defense gaining some momentum while the offense struggled in the first half, the offense sprung to life in the second behind the legs of Booker and the arm of backup QB Cade Sparks, who entered the game in relief of Harker in the second quarter.

Sparks opened the back half with his first-career pass attempt, a 43-yard strike to Bob Pugh (two receptions, 47 yards) to help setup the first of two Jerry Nunez field goals. This first one by Nunez came from 43 yards out with 12:13 left to play in the third quarter, his eighth-career 40-yard field goal following an impressive freshman season in 2016. Nunez also nailed a 19-yarder in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter to make it a 16-13 game in EIU’s favor.

Above all else, though, it was the tough sledding of Booker that kept the Sycamores in contention throughout the game. Booker ended the game with 154 rushing yards and one touchdown (which came on a six-yard scamper with 4:54 to play, giving ISU a 20-16 lead), making him the first Sycamore to rush for at least 150 yards since Shakir Bell totaled 201 at Tennessee Tech in 2013. Booker opened the game with 56 yards in the first quarter, and ended with 59 in the fourth.

It seemed that the Sycamores were about to take an even larger lead after forcing another three-and-out following Booker’s rushing TD and getting the ball back with 4:06 to play. ISU marched down the field thanks to a 17-yard run by Booker, but stalled out to 4th-and-6 on the EIU 31-yard line. Rather than trying to pin them with a punt, Coach Mallory and the Sycamores sent out the field goal unit for a 48-yard try with Nunez – which would have been a career-long. Nunez had the distance, but a crosswind pushed it right to give Eastern the ball back for the fortuitous final drive.

Indiana State now heads down to SEC country for the first time since 1995 with a contest down in Rocky Top against Tennessee on Sept. 9 at 4 p.m. ET.