Two games into the season, Illinois State football is off and running. And that's the way head coach Brock Spack likes it.
After all, ISU possesses a balanced offense with a mobile quarterback and a stable of thoroughbred runners playing behind solid line. Spack, a Rockford native, grew up watching Big Ten Conference football during the era of Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler. He later played and coached at Purdue.
"There's no real secret to what I like to see on offense," Spack said at this year's team media day.
Unhappy with his team's inconsistent play the past few seasons, the 56-year-old Spack made numerous changes with his coaching staff. Offensively, that meant bringing back coordinator and quarterbacks coach Kurt Beathard along with line coach Harold Etheridge. Both had previous experience with the Redbirds.
"Experience with success," Spack noted.
Through two games, Illinois State has shown remarkable balance. The Redbirds have gained 468 yards on the ground and 505 through the air. They've run for 21 first downs and thrown for 19. ISU has seven rushing touchdowns and five passing TDs.
And, oh, by the way, Illinois State is 2-0 heading into next weekend's nonconference road game at FBS member Colorado State.
Quarterbacking the Redbirds this year is Brady Davis, a 6-foot-4 transfer from Memphis University, who beat out two-year starter Jake Kolbe in fall camp.
Davis is a dual-threat as exhibited by his 317-yard, four-touchdown passing performance in Saturday's 48-10 pasting of Eastern Illinois. He also carried the ball for 14 yards and a rushing touchdown.
“With our offensive line, we’ve got the ability to run the ball at any time," Beathard said.
“Our backs are very good. We’re at least four deep, or five deep," Spack said.
That group is headlined by the three-headed monster of James Robinson, Markel Smith and Jordan Birch.
Juniors Robinson and Smith were the primary backs against Eastern, combining for 239 yards on 30 carries.
"Markel is a real explosive, powerful back. One of the best in the country because the other one is James," said senior reserve Nick Kielbasa. "Those two are just freaks on the field. James is very elusive, a strong, powerful runner. He’ll make a cut and he’ll be gone."
Robinson--like his head coach, a Rockford native--ran for 153 yards on 15 carries Saturday. His running chewed up 67 yards on a fourth-quarter scoring drive.
"James and Markel are very similar in build," Birch said. "James is in and out of his cuts with real good acceleration."
Birch, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound sophomore from Wichita, is an explosive spark whose plays are often electrifying.
"Jordan will play anywhere. You put him in route, he’ll catch it. He’ll jump over people and he’ll outrun people every single time. He’ll even hop over people as we all saw on ESPN (in a top 10 highlight when he jumped over a Butler defender)," Kielbasa said.
Smith described Birch as "very versatile, a bigger back. Faster guy who can make you miss."
Kielbasa got into the act in the season-opening win over St. Xavier, scoring his first career rushing touchdown.
"Nick is another big body, a real strong runner. One of the toughest guys that I know. Not afraid to stick his nose in there and get the tough yards," Birch said.
Passing it on
When a team can run the ball effectively, the playbook of possibilities opens.
"If we’re going to run the ball, we’re going to play action. We can make all the throws with our quarterbacks. We can get the ball out in rhythm," Beathard said.
A prime example occurred midway through the second quarter in Saturday's game. After seemingly being pinned on its own three-yard line following an EIU punt, Davis faked a handoff into the line and connected with senior receiver Spencer Schnell on a 97-yard touchdown.
“He likes to stick to what he knows as an offense and build off that," Schnell said of Beathard. "Whenever we’re doing something well he’ll let that continue to roll. If something doesn’t work we’ll try something new, and if that works we’ll keep that going."
So far this season, it has all worked well for Illinois State football.