Over the next couple of weeks, GopherDigest will take an early look at the Minnesota Gophers football team’s opponents throughout the 2016 regular season. Today, we preview the Indiana State Sycamores.
Indiana State Sycamores vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers
TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, Minn.
Sept. 10, 2016, time TBA
Indiana State head coach: Mike Sanford (6th season)
Coordinators: Brian Shepherd (Offensive coordinator; 5th season) and Brian Cabral (defensive coordinator; 5th season)
Indiana State 2015 record – 5-6 (3-5 MVC): The Sycamores started off the 2015 campaign strong, winning two of their first three games (beating Butler 52-17 in their season opener, losing to Purdue on the road 38-14 and then defeating Southeast Missouri State at home 29-28). However, the Sycamores would go on to lose five of their last eight contests and miss out on the FCS playoffs.
2015 offensive stats: 60th nationally in total offense (380.6 YPG), 57th in scoring offense (27.7 PPG), 59th in passing offense (204.6 YPG), 45th in rushing offense (176.0 YPG)
2015 defensive stats: 81st nationally in total defense (406.1 YPG), 84th in scoring defense (31.5 PPG), 52nd in passing defense (207.8 YPG), 90th in rushing defense (198.5 YPG)
Returning leading passer – QB Isaac Harker (16 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT on 2-of- 4 passing): With last year's starter Matt Adam being ruled academically ineligible for the 2016 season, sophomore Isaac Harker is the leader passer from last year's squad. He'll be very inexperienced when the Gophers and Sycamores play in early September.
Returning leading rusher – RB Roland Genesy (582 yards, 5 TD on 117 carries): The Sycamore's lose their leading rusher in attempts from last season as quarterback Matt Adam won't be there, but Genesy is going to likely be the guy who picks up the slack.
Returning leading receiver – WR Robert Tonyan (601 yards, 6 TD on 40 catches): Indiana State returns their leading receiver from last season in senior Robert Tonyan as he lead the Sycamores in receptions, yards and was second on the team in receiving touchdowns (six) and yards per reception (15.0).
Returning leading tackler – LB Jameer Thurman (75 tackles): The Sycamores lose their leading tackler from last season in Kendall Walker, but returned Thurman (second leading tackler) and he'll be going on his fourth year as starter.
Returning leader in interceptions – LB Jameer Thurman and DB Marcus Gray (one pick): Indiana State only had 11 interceptions last fall and they're leader with three graduated in Travis Starks. This is a pass defense that was 52nd in the nation in 2015, so the Sycamores are just over average in the FCS.
FIVE QUESTIONS ANSWERED BY ROB LAFARY OF THE INDIANA STATESMEN
What was the biggest thing about this Indiana State team that you drew from watching spring practices and its spring game?
RL: There wasn't much to take away from this year's spring game but through overall practices and workouts, it's safe to say that the biggest positive coming out of it was the potential that lies within the youth of the Sycamore football program. You saw that several of the underclassmen that saw playing time in 2015 had continued to get stronger and improve and the youth that maybe hadn't seen the field as much had made significant strides.
What are the three biggest story lines to follow this season?
RL: 1.) The QB Debacle- Missouri Valley Football All-Conference QB Matt Adam has been ruled academically ineligible for the 2016 season which is a major blow to an ISU offense that was expecting production from Adam both on the ground and in the air. Second-string redshirt sophomore Isaac Harker is more than likely the heir to the throne after showing promise in the final game of the 2015 regular season. Harker led the game winning drive in Adam's absence in November against Youngstown State.
2.) Who replaces The Big 3 on Defense?- All-Conference selections Mark Sewall and Kendall Walker are graduated and trying to land an NFL spot as is 2015 Preseason All-American linebacker Connor Underwood. The positive (in 2016 at least) is the fact that all three have replacements who saw significant time last year due to injuries to the three throughout the year and succeeded in stretches. The question mark lies within if the replacements can now step into full-time roles and help anchor a defense that has kept the Sycamores within striking distance of several teams in the past two years. They will get a big assist from defensive veterans Katrell Moss, Tsali Lough, Conlan Cassidy, and Jameer Thurman.
3.) Getting Back on the Right Page- With a new Director of Athletics in town and the rumors continuing to swirl around the future of Indiana State Football, the Sycamores need to revert back to the ways of two years ago when the team made its first playoff appearance and got its first postseason win in 30 years. In order to do so, ISU must lock in mentally as Coach Mike Sanford continues to strive for a consistent "winning mentality" with his group. Several games were winnable a year ago but silly penalties, mental miscues, and the hiccuping of early leads were all problems that now need to be solved in 2016.
What are Indiana State’s greatest strengths for the 2016 season?
RL: Veteran leadership on the defensive side of the football, potential of newcomers/underclassmen, depth.
What are the Sycamores' greatest weaknesses?
RL: Special teams, question marks at the QB position and in the backfield (running backs plagued by inconsistency and injuries last year), concerns on mentality and closing out games.
What is your outlook for the 2016 season for Indiana State?
RL: Outside of what will be a challenging road trip to Minnesota in Week 2, the schedule sets the Sycamores up for success in 2016. Realistically, ISU goes into the Missouri Valley Football Conference portion of the season with a 2-1 record and then faces the gauntlet that is the MVFC. However, with a couple of MVFC teams losing key pieces, the chances for 7-8 wins and a berth in the FCS playoffs is obtainable for this group. The weapons to make this happen are there, but do the weapons have the mentality and killer instinct to make a reality?
You can follow Rob Lafary on Twitter @RobLafary.
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COMPLETED EARLY OPPONENT PREVIEWS:
Sept. 24 vs. Colorado State
Oct. 1 at Penn State
Oct. 8 vs. Iowa
Oct. 15 at Maryland
Oct. 22 vs. Rutgers (Homecoming)
Oct. 29 at Illinois
Nov. 5 vs. Purdue
Nov. 12 at Nebraska
Nov. 19 vs. Northwestern
Nov. 26 at Wisconsin