Nov. 21—Indiana State football coach Curt Mallory said in the press conference leading up to the opener that this was the healthiest his team had been coming into a year.
The team was shut out 27-0 by Eastern Illinois in Memorial Stadium.
Starting quarterback Cade Chambers didn't dress. After the game, it was revealed that he had an undisclosed injury that he needed to rest, according to Mallory.
Chambers, who was fresh off Missouri Valley Football Conference recognition, earned his first win in the backfield with ISU against Western Illinois, 27-6, on the second-to-last week of the regular season. He completed 11 of 20 passes for 134 yards and a touchdown.
He had two carries for 5 yards. His average per attempt was 6.7 yards.
The dearth of star power due to injury in the opener seeped into the year.
Defensive back Rylan Cole was named first-team all-MVFC in the preseason. He was coming off 84 tackles and three interceptions. He didn't play one snap this year with an undisclosed injury.
Junior running back Justin Dinka, a preseason second-team MVFC selection, missed some team activities in the week leading up to the opener. He appeared to run with ailments in the first two weeks. He missed Week 3 and 4.
ISU finished the year with a four-touchdown loss to Southern Illinois in a game marred by four fumbles lost. Two came from Chambers, one returned 61 yards for a score and another came from junior Gavin Screws on his second play from scrimmage in the fourth quarter.
The Sycamores had another giveaway earlier; they couldn't field a kickoff before SIU recovered it at the 22.
ISU was picked to finish 10th in the Valley this year, it finished tied for that spot with Murray State, who was picked 11th.
Western Illinois finished in last and didn't play the Racers.
ISU fell by more than 14 points in conference play twice. Across the 11-game season slate, the offense failed to get to the end zone five times.
The defense was never folded despite battling bad field position and the offense not sustaining a consistent cadence.
The Sycamores gave up 30 points a game. Senior Lucas Hunter concluded his time in Terre Haute with 103 stops and 44 games. This year, he notched his only interception and forced fumble. He had a sack and 3 1/2 tackles for a loss this campaign.
The unit will be bolstered by the potential returning services of sophomore Maddix Blackwell, who was the first one in the program to reach triple-digit stops since linebacker Jonas Griffith did it in 2019 with 106.
Blackwell was more than a security blanket in the secondary. He plowed through runners getting through holes and didn't shy away from licks he absorbed from bigger tight ends and backs.
He impeded runners with fundamental tackling as foes picked up steam in the third level.
He started the year with promise with a late interception against Eastern Illinois. He had two on the season, two forced fumbles and two recoveries for scores against Indiana (75-yard return) and at SIU.
Another key cog is slated to be back lined up at middle linebacker.
In the final five weeks, the Sycamores gave up more than 19 points just twice, which had a lot to do with junior Garrett Ollendieck who launched through the final stages of the season.
Seven and 1/2 tackles of his tackles in the backfield came in the final five weeks. He had a baker's dozen for the entire year. Four and 1/2 sacks of his seven and 1/2 came during the final quarter of the season.
He had 97 tackles, forced a fumble and his interception against Illinois State was one of two first-quarter touchdowns this year for ISU.
It was one of three touchdowns taken to the house by the defense.
ISU announced on social media Tuesday that the Sycamores won't face North Dakota State and South Dakota State, again, in 2024. The only deviation in MVFC foe is Missouri State instead of Western Illinois.
Hunter Tickel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @tribstarhunter.