Illinois State is usually a game you circle on the calendar for being a tough MVFC game. After quitting the spring schedule midway thru and a 0-2 conference start this fall, what can we expect from the Redbirds come Saturday?
With only eight seniors on the roster, this clearly is a rebuilding year for Brock Spack and his boys from Normal. Recently, only the 2019 Bison won the double cup of the MVFC Championship and ANOTHER Natty with a team loaded with underclassman. Covid wrecked havoc on what that young nucleus would have done, but the Herd is back on track this fall.
The Redbirds are definitely showing the signs of inexperience and the inconsistency that young teams often display. After playing cup cake Butler to open the season (49-7 blowout), they were totally shut down by FBS Western Michigan (ranked slightly lower than the Herd in Sagarin 64/69). Starting QB, Bryce Jefferson, continued to do very little in being an elite QB (8/19, for 28 yards with 1 INT and 2 sacks and on the ground he had 7 carries for minus 5 yards rushing).
The Redbirds offensive landscape took a seismic shift in the third game versus arch instate rival, E Illinois, when Bryce went down with a shoulder injury. His replacement is Jackson Waring, a 6’3” 215 lb red-shirt frosh. He scored a key TD with an 8 yard run in the 3rd QTR. IL State squeaked by with a 31-24 victory on a 4th QTR TD with 1:54 remaining in the game. Emotionally it was a big instate rivalry win, but leaves the Redbirds as a question mark. A good MVFC team should be beating a 1-5, 219th ranked Sagarin team by 45-14, not 31-24 in the last two minutes of the game.
IL State’s two conference losses are the tale of two halves.
The Redbirds stifled Southern IL’s high powered offense (14th in FCS at 449.2 YPG) in the 1st half, shutting them out and leading 10-0 at the break. They then took the opening 2nd half kickoff and marched it 75 yards in just under 3 minutes to take a 17-0 lead. Even after a quick score by the Saluki’s made 17-7, the Redbirds, with 4 & ½ minutes left in the 3rd QTR, were on SIU’s 6 yard line facing a 4th and 1. They went for it instead of kicking a FG. The attempt failed. SIU took it 94 yards and now it was 17-14. From here everything unraveled for the Redbirds. The Saluki’s scored three 4th QTR TD’s to win going away 35-17.
Two weeks ago at home against the Mo. State Bears, they played a competitive first half. At the break the Bears led only by 21-20. Waring was hitting big pass play after big pass play. Many of which were an extension of his ability to prolong the plays by scrambling. The key issue I took away from the 1st half was the Redbirds could not run the ball at all! In fact IL State came away from the game with 40 yards rushing with 1.3 YPC. That’s not winning MVFC football.
My gut tells me that the Redbirds have enough jam in the jar to be sticky, but not enough to cover the loaf of bread. By this time in the year you have started to establish who you really are as a team. The only team they could effectively run on was a bad E IL team (84th in FCS rush D at 170.7 YPG). Against the three good teams they faced they are averaging 73.3 YPG. This sounds like an innate ability not to be able to establish a ground game.
When you look at the picture of Total Offense (throwing out Butler), they are averaging 246.5 YPG and scoring 17 points per game with the rushing only creeping up to 114.8 YPG because of the 239 they got against Eastern IL. This isn’t a well oiled offensive machine. None of the defenses which accomplished this are as good as Code Green with the exception of W Mich. (32nd run D at 114 YPG, 24th Total D at 310.7 YPG and 71st in Scoring D at 25.5 PPG at FBS level).
You might be asking, isn’t Brock Spack’s team’s good ole MVFC smash mouth defensive football? Yes, but the team that takes the field Saturday isn’t the one that took the field in the quarter finals of the 2019 season that held us to three FG’s. Looking at their last four games they have given up 401.8 YPG in Total Offense, 170.5 YPG rushing and 32 PPG. In fact in the last two games versus MVFC playoff teams SIU and Mo. State those numbers jump to 442.5 YPG TO, 170.5 YPG rushing (4.7 YPC) and 38 PPG. I don’t believe either of these teams have any more offensive weapons than the Bison and I think the Rams are the best OL in the league.
What to expect Saturday?
I think Code Green is going to reduce the Redbirds to a single dimensional team by stopping the run as did W Michigan and Mo. State. Waring is a gamer at QB and mobile (think Theo Day, UNI last week), but doesn’t have Isaiah Weston to throw to. If he goes 12/31, with a pick and 5 sacks (which Day did), Herd wins going away. Note: Since writing this coach Spack has said he will start Bryce Jefferson at QB, I don't think that changes things.
Offensively I think the Bison are due for a break out game. QPII has established the QB run game again in the Bison arsenal and is “playing fast” (QB run game was the biggest single missing ingredient in the offense last spring) Add to this that last week coach Roehl actually discovered that Watson is on his roster (lol, let’s have some fun). It’s time to take the training wheels off and let the horses run wild.
On special teams there could be some advantages for the Bison. The Redbirds have had two blocked punts and have allowed nine punts to be returned for 57 yards with 1 TD and on kickoffs they are giving up over 30 yards per return. Both of their return teams have been very mundane to date (10 KO returns for 148 yards and 4 punt returns for 6 yards).
Let me bring my analysis for the game to a close in this way. I don’t think Spack and company have enough horses in the barn to win this race against the Bison. They are young and inexperienced. We need to start fast so they can’t hang around for a half like they did with SIU and Mo. State. I think the Bison are in a good place with regards to attitude and making weekly progression. This is the most energy I have seen in a Bison team this early in the season. It feels like the playoff push. I think two things are contributing to this. First, the bad taste last spring left in the players mouths. Second, and which is more fun, the Bison are playing more players during the expanse of the whole game. More players are contributing and are locked in.
Vegas have the Herd at about a 21 point advantage, in other words a comfortable win. I concur. Go Bison!