Second-half starting field position loomed large as Illinois State overcame a determined effort by rival Western Illinois.
The Redbirds, ranked 14th in the FCS Coaches Poll, scored 21 fourth-quarter points (including a touchdown in the game's final 10 seconds) to rally past the Leathernecks for a 33-16 in a Missouri Valley Football Conference game at Hancock Stadium.
Thanks mainly to punter JT Bohlken, WIU's average starting field position was its own 16-yard line in the second half. The redshirt sophomore from Jefferson City, Mo. averaged 47 yards per punt, but more importantly dropped five kicks inside the Western 20. Illinois State's average starting field position in the second half was its own 38.
"Field position was huge in this game for both teams," ISU head coach Brock Spack said in the postgame.
Junior running back James Robinson carried the ball 29 times for a game-high 145 yards and three touchdowns. Robinson exhibited both power and speed as Illinois State improved its record to 4-1 overall and 1-1 in the conference. Western dropped to 2-3 overall and 1-1 in the MVFC.
"James Robinson was outstanding today. He was a handful," Spack said.
Trailing 16-12 entering the game's final quarter, ISU took over the game. The Redbirds grabbed the lead on an 11-yard run off the left side by Robinson. The TD followed a key pass interference call against Western's Darron Wheeler on a third-and-12.
After each team punted on their next possessions, WIU quarterback Sean McGuire, scrambling to avoid the rush on a third-and-long play, threw an ill-advised pass that ISU defensive back Luther Kirk intercepted and returned 39 yards for a touchdown.
"He was eyeing his man pretty hard. I just broke on the ball," Kirk said.
McGuire's interception came just two plays after an apparent first-down pass to Clint Ratkovich was overturned by replay.
McGuire breaks WIU records
McGuire became the Leathernecks' all-time leader in passing yards (8,269) and passing touchdowns (64) in Saturday's game.
The senior quarterback eclipsed the marks previously held by Paul Singer (1985-88). McGuire surpassed the touchdown record on Western's opening drive with a 16-yard pass to Tony Tate and set the yardage mark in the fourth quarter on a nine-yarder to Steve McShane.
"This guy continues to get better and better," WIU head coach Jared Elliott said. "He's a very unique and special young man, and I've never coached anyone like him. We've got some special kids, and I cannot be more proud of them, even after tough loses where it hurts the most. The effort and how these guys compete and fight; we'll heal from the hurt, 24-hour rule, and we'll move on and get better."
5 Stats That Stood Out
1 – Turnover by Illinois State this season (none in Saturday's game)
5 – Straight games that Western Illinois has scored on its first possesion
5 – Straight times that Illinois State has won with Coach To Cure MD Redbird partner Nicolas Gonzales in attendance
11 – Western Illinois penalties for 108 yards
13 – More first downs by Illinois State (ISU 22, WIU 9)
Illinois State hosts Southern Illinois for Homecoming in a Missouri Valley game. The game kicks off at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13.