Prairie State Pigskin contacted those close to each Illinois FCS program to get a midterm report on the 2018 season. Here's our second such report, courtesy of ISU sideline reporter Craig Bertsche.
Illinois State (4-1 overall, 1-1 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference)
Offense: B. The Redbirds offense was blistering in the non-conference portion of the schedule, but things have cooled since entering Valley play. Quarterback Brady Davis has great talent but is still developing a comfort level in offensive coordinator Kurt Beathard’s offense. He needs another receiver (aside from Spencer Schnell) to step forward. The offensive line has been very good and continues to improve. But the highlight of the offense is junior running back James Robinson. He’s turned into a workhorse who excels late in games. He’s the best RB in the league and may be the best in FCS. I think he may be better than former Redbird All-American Marshaun Coprich.
Defense: A. I was going to give the D a B+, but then I started looking over the stats. The Redbirds are second in total, rush and pass defense to North Dakota State. They dominated really good offenses of Colorado State and Western Illinois. The Redbirds are extremely good up front and are getting better. Iowa transfer Romeo McKnight appears to be healthy now and his play makes everyone better. New defensive coordinator (and former Redbird) Travis Niekamp has really transformed this unit—he was an under-the-radar here by Brock Spack in the off-season. But this unit can really carry this team when the offense struggles.
Special Teams: C+ This would be higher, but two missed field goals at Missouri State are why the Redbirds have one loss. Redbird kickers are 4 of 8 on field goal attempts. This has to improve with tight games looming. JT Bohlken has been a revelation as a punter. He helped ISU control field position in the fourth quarter against Western Illinois. He leads the Valley in punting. Schnell has been excellent handling punt return duties. And sophomore Christian Uphoff is due to return a kickoff for a touchdown (he leads the Valley in kick return average).
What to look for in the second half: I look for the pass offense to improve. QB Brady Davis has not played many games in college, but he doesn’t rattle easily. Once he gets comfortable with the offense, look out. I’m still sticking to my prediction the James Robinson will win the Valley rushing title. He’s fun to watch and he destroys defensive backs who try to tackle him. The young defense will continue to improve. Watch out for redshirt freshman defensive lineman John Ridgeway—he already commands double-teams and excels at stuffing the run. And junior Willie Edwards is a lockdown corner who forces teams to throw at redshirt freshman corner Devin Taylor, who gets better each week. After Southern Illinois, the Redbirds are at North Dakota State, at home against South Dakota State and at Northern Iowa. If they go 3-1 in that stretch, they’ll likely be a top 8 seed in the FCS playoffs. This is a very young team that is relishing the challenge of the rugged MVFC.
--Craig Bertsche, sideline reporter for Illinois State Redbird Football Radio Network