Oct. 24—With 2 minutes, 25 seconds left in the third quarter, it didn't seem like Homecoming was going to go Indiana State's way.
Sometimes, though, you don't know when opportunity is going to knock. At that 2:25 mark, that's when the Sycamores took hold of the lifeline that got them back into the game.
Youngstown State led by three and had the ball at the ISU 46, facing 4th-and-inches. The Penguins went for it, knowing that a conversion could have helped them parade to a two-score advantage on the road.
YSU got a bit cute and decided to put gigantic defensive tackle Jelani Stafford in the game to bull his way forward for the conversion.
Stafford, who had one previous carry this season, took it outside and to the left a bit too far. Kelvin Broome Jr. hit Stafford first and then linebacker David Whittemore put in a hammer blow to knock Stafford backwards for no gain.
From that defensive stand onward, the Sycamores had control of the contest. ISU would ride a pair of touchdowns and four forced turnovers in the final quarter to a 28-17 win over the Penguins in front of 5,479 at Memorial Stadium.
"I was a front row seat to that hit. I looked at their sideline and I got real hyped. That travels around to the whole team too," ISU safety Ethan Hoover said.
One week after a 30-point loss at Missouri State, ISU (4-4, 2-3) had one of its most consistent displays of the season. Not only did ISU's defense force four fumbles, but the Sycamores held a good YSU running attack to 226 rushing yards.
ISU did have some help in this department. YSU quarterback Demeatric Crenshaw, a running threat, suffered a high ankle sprain early in the game. Running back Jaleel McLaughlin, who was a terror at times on his way to 138 rushing yards, was dinged up and didn't play regularly in the second half, taking a big club out of the Penguins' bag.
Still, it was a good and impactful effort by ISU's defense.
"I put that defensive performance up there because we had some adversity. They scored right after the half and we stayed calm and battled through the adversity," ISU cornerback J.J. Henderson said.
Offensively, ISU probably achieved its run-first identity better in this game than it has all season. Peterson Kerlegrand rushed for 151 yards and two touchdowns, including a 53-yard touchdown run with 10:02 left that ultimately served as a dagger.
Augmenting Kerlegrand's rushing effort was quarterback Anthony Thompson. Heralded as a running threat before he took a snap for the Sycamores, he lived up to it with 63 rushing yards and two TD runs of his own. Thompson was also solid in the passing department as he completed 13 of 21 passes for 156 yards. His only mistake was a second quarter interception by YSU in the end zone.
"[Having designed runs] is something we've talked about as the year has gone on. Today, at halftime, we put those plays in and I've been prepared for it all year. It helps us get another blocker in the run game and it puts another guy on a defensive player we don't have to block," said Thompson on running the ball.
ISU's offense also benefitted by a vastly improved effort from ISU's offensive line. Thompson was not sacked and hurried just once. ISU averaged 5.3 yards per carry.
"They played great today. As far as protection went, they did a great job. Anything we called, I could execute and you could see it in the run game on how much we averaged," Thompson said.
The Sycamores started the game well, marching downfield 80 yards in seven plays, capped by a six-yard Thompson touchdown run. That was all according to plan, ISU coach Curt Mallory said.
"I said last Sunday morning we'd start on offense, I wanted the kick return to start the game and I wanted our guys to respond and I thought they did," Mallory said.
However, YSU (2-4, 1-3) answered right back as McLaughlin, described accurately by Henderson as a "home run hitter" in terms of his running style, had a run of 31 yards, and then, a 21-yard touchdown to tie it.
ISU took a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter via a two-yard Kerlegrand touchdown scamper and missed a chance to go up by two touchdowns when Thompson was intercepted in the end zone by YSU linebacker Grant Dixon.
At that point, it seemed opportunity was knocking for the Penguins. YSU tied it by halftime in a knick of time on a 14-yard Bryce Oliver touchdown catch with 2 seconds left in the first half.
That was a body blow that seemed to carry over into the early part of the third quarter. The Penguins survived a fumble that was overturned on review to get the ball inside the ISU 5-yard line. ISU's defense held, though, and limited the damage to a field goal to make it 17-14.
After the fourth down stop later in the third period, ISU gobbled up all of the momentum.
"That fourth down play was a huge momentum swing. We got rolling," Mallory said.
Thompson put ISU in front 21-17 with an 11-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter. Then ISU interceptions came in droves.
Hoover got the first one with 11:42 left. That set up the possession that led to Kerlegrand's 53-yard touchdown. He ran between Isaiah Edwards and Jalen Booth, cut left, and sped to daylight for a touchdown that put ISU up 28-17.
"We responded after last week. We're not going to give up. It's all about keeping our heads up, staying focused and playing the game we love to play," Kerlegrand said on the overall effort.
The remaining Penguins efforts to get back in it were stymied by interceptions. Henderson got one off of a dropped pass at 9:51 and then he got another 6:46 left when Joe Craycraft's attempt to throw the ball out of bounds caught too much air and landed in Henderson's arms. YSU's last ditch effort to get back in it died in the hands of Omar Jackson, who intercepted Craycraft with 3:24 left.
ISU's FCS playoff hopes are still a long-shot, but the Sycamores remain alive if they can run the table. That won't be easy, though, and it gets very difficult next week with a trip to No. 3 North Dakota State.