The Air Raid offense is nothing new to Brock Spack, but he’ll see a new-look version Saturday night in the 107th Mid-America Classic game between his Illinois State Redbirds and Eastern Illinois in Normal.
“It’s a little different than what we do, so that makes it a challenge,” said Spack, the head coach of ISU, the 19th-ranked team in FCS this week. “If you don’t do that offensively, you have to really coach your scout team guys to do that.”
Spack saw another version of the speedy, up-tempo attack from EIU in 2012 and 2013 led by quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and head coach Dino Babers. Spack also coached against it earlier in his career as a Big Ten Conference defensive coordinator.
“It comes from Texas,” Spack said. “Dino was from Texas. The new offensive coordinator (at EIU, Scott Parr) is from Texas. We started playing against it when I was at Purdue as a coordinator.”
Eastern’s biggest weapon is senior wide receiver Alexander Hollins, who had nine catches for 127 and three TDs last week in a 55-20 loss to Arkansas of the Southeastern Conference.
“The things we’re doing offensively really accentuate his talents,” EIU head coach Kim Dameron said. “If you get the ball to him nine times, he’s going to make some things happen.”
Dameron’s defense faces its own challenge with the potent ISU running attack of juniors James Robinson and Markel Smith and sophomore Jordan Birch, who piled up four touchdowns and 156 yards in a season-opening rout of NAIA Saint Xavier, 46-0.
“Offensively, they’re very potent,” Dameron said. “They have good running backs. Their tight ends and fullback are big, physically kids. Their offensive line is very big and very good.”
iSU leads the series, which is the oldest FCS rivalry in Illinois, 55-42-9 and has won three of the past four meetings. Spack is 5-4 in his career against EIU, including a 44-13 victory last season in Charleston.
The series has had its share of unpredictable moments. One of the biggest highlights of Dameron’s five seasons at Eastern was the Panthers’ 24-21 victory in Normal two years ago against then-No. 5 ISU.
“It’s what makes college football fun,” Spack said of the rivalry.
Three key matchups
- ISU’s RB trio vs. EIU linebackers: Expect a busy day for Eastern’s Dytarious Johnson and Joe Caputo against the talented trio of Illinois State RBs.
- EIU WR Alexander Hollins vs. ISU secondary: A deep Illinois State secondary faces a challenge against Hollins, the Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Week who caught three touchdowns vs. Arkansas.
- ISU QB Brady Davis vs. EIU defense: Davis is known for his big arm. Last week, Arkansas peppered the Panthers with the pass game, piling up 353 yards through the air and four TDs.
Eastern Illinois (0-1) at Illinois State (1-0), 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 8. Game airs on NBC Sports Chicago Plus and online at ESPN Plus.