How big is Saturday's Missouri Valley Football Conference opener on the Illinois State Redbirds' schedule? So big that head coach Brock Spack closed practice to outsiders during this week's preparation.
"There are some things we're going to work on, some things we're going to be practicing that I don't want out there," Spack told The Pantagraph earlier this week. "It might get caught on camera. It could be our cadence gets caught on a tape recorder. I don't want any chances."
Therefore the Redbird staff allowed no one outside of the inner circle in leading up to Saturday's game at Indiana State. That list included media, former players, other alumni, donors as well as high school and other college coaches.
"It's just to get our team refocused on everything," Spack said.
The head coach's recommitment no doubt stems from his Redbirds' 24-21 loss to rival Eastern Illinois. Though it outgained EIU by a wide margin, ISU made mistakes in virtually every phase of the game in the loss to the Panthers.
"I was very disappointed in our focus this game," Spack said after the defeat that saw the rivalry's traveling trophy go to Eastern for the first time since 2013.
The loss to Eastern dropped the Redbirds from their perch at No. 5 in the FCS STATS poll to No. 9. Meanwhile, Indiana State received one vote in the poll.
Despite racking up 443 yards in total offense and 25 first downs, ISU dropped the 105th version of the Mid-America Classic. The Redbirds fumbled four times, losing two, and threw a pair of interceptions.
Indiana State rallied from a 24-13 deficit with 5:19 remaining to shock Southeast Missouri State for a thrilling road victory. The Sycamores scored the game-winning touchdown with just 10 seconds left on the clock to prevail 27-24.
Three Key Matchups
- ISU's secondary vs. Indiana State's passing game: Sycamore quarterback Isaac Harker was the MVFC Offensive Player of the Week after his 302-yard, three-touchdown night against SEMO.
- ISU's run game vs. Indiana State's defense: The Redbirds must generate a reliable rushing game against a Sycamore defense that is giving up 4.6 yards per carry. Spack expressed his disappointment in the play of ISU's senior-laden offensive line last weekend.
- Special teams: Illinois State performed poorly on its kickoff returns and in its punt game. In addition, kicker Sean Slattery missed a 40-yard field goal attempt. Like making free throws in basketball, ISU must convert in the third phase of the game.
Indiana State opened its season by thumping Butler. The Sycamores lost in week two at Minnesota in what will likley be Indiana State's final game against a Big Ten opponent. Head coach Mike Sanford wants to ride the momentum of last weekend's comeback victory as his team hosts Illinois State.
Close to Home
Saturday's game marks the first time the Redbirds will venture out of their home state this season. ISU has sandwiched its trip to Northwestern with a pair of home games at Hancock Stadium.
Returning to the Lineup
Several Sycamores who missed the SEMO game with concussions--including defensive back Tsali Lough and wide receiver Bob Pugh--will be back for the conference opener Saturday.
Sycamores with Illinois Roots
Thirteen players on the Indiana State roster come from Illinois. Tops on that list is redshirt senior Robert Tonyan, a 6-foot-5 wide receiver from McHenry. Tonyan, a former quarterback, leads Indiana State with 22 receptions for 272 yards and four touchdowns.
ISU senior wide receiver Anthony Warrum set a pair of milestones in Saturday's loss to EIU. Warrum became the eighth player in Redbird history to surpass 2,000 yards and is the 14th player with 100 career receptions.