Top defenses on display as Illinois State travels to North Dakota State for Top 10 showcase

Top defenses on display as Illinois State travels to North Dakota State for Top 10 showcase
Drew Himmelman, the Missouri Valley Football Conference Offensive Lineman of the Week, will be counted on to open holes for the Illinois State run game. (photo courtesy of GoRedbirds.com)

The top two defenses in the Missouri Valley Football Conference will be on display in a Top 10 national battle between Illinois State and North Dakota State Saturday in Fargo.

And it's a confrontation that was immediately recognized following the Redbirds' impressive 51-3 romp over Southern Illinois last weekend.

"We've got a big challenge up ahead of us," ISU quarterback Brady Davis said just seconds into the postgame.

ISU head coach Brock Spack addressed the NDSU defense during his weekly press conference.

"Very typical for them, really good front very physical. Great motors, physical. They play hard snap to whistle," Spack said.

The 10th-year Redbird coach went on to laud the linebackers and secondary as well.

"This is maybe a tick better than they were a year ago . . . if you can imagine that," Spack said.

 

A big challenge indeed. North Dakota State is the gold standard of not only the MVFC but also of the FCS world. The No. 1-ranked Bison are 6-0 overall and 3-0 in the conference. NDSU is the only college football program to ever win five consecutive NCAA national championships, and the only football program to win six FCS titles in seven years.

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Yet, Illinois State (5-1, 2-1) feels it can compete, even in the hostile atmosphere of the 19,000-seat Fargodome.

"We're built to play in the Missouri Valley now, and that's how we've been recruiting. That's how you have to be built to be successful in this league," Spack said.

Like NDSU, the Redbirds are built to run the ball, pass effectively once the ground game is established and play solid defense.

"Our young defense has played really, really well and they're getting better each day," Spack noted.

Still, the Bison boast a rushing attack that averages 265.7 yards per game. NDSU has run for 19 touchdowns while allowing just two on defense. While two NDSU's marquee players--running back Bruce Anderson and safety Robbie Grimsley--left Saturday's 34-7 win at Western Illinois with lower leg injuries, neither has been ruled out for Saturday. Moreover, the Bison have the depth to overcome adversity.

Anderson, a senior, leads NDSU in rushing with 522 yards in six games, a 7.1 yards-per-carry average. Grimsley, a four-year starter, is the top tackler with 42. He also has an interception.

Three key matchups

  1. ISU running game vs. NDSU defense:  In last week's win over Southern Illinois, James Robinson (202) and Markel Smith (143) each broke the century mark for rushing. While the numbers won't be that high against NDSU, the Redbirds need solid performances from their backs Saturday. The Bison are holding opponents to 84.8 yards per game and 2.5 yards per rush a game.
  2. NDSU rushing game vs. ISU defense:  Even if leading rusher Bruce Anderson is limited or can't play against ISU, three other rushers average more than 5.5 yards per carry (and QB Easton Stick averages 4.9) .
  3. Turnover margin: NDSU has outscored opponents 66-10 off turnovers this season. The Bison are +10 in the category. Illinois State is +9. The Redbirds have turned the ball over just twice this season.

Game details

No. 7/8 Illinois State at No. 1 North Dakota State. Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. at the Fargodome. Fans can listen to the ISU radio network on the Tune-In app or can watch the game on ESPN+.

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