Illinois Bicentennial: ISU's near-miss of a national championship

Illinois Bicentennial:  ISU's near-miss of a national championship

To commemorate the upcoming Dec. 3 bicentennial of Illinois becoming a state, Prairie State Pigskin begins a series today featuring some milestones in the Land of Lincoln's football lore. Today, we highlight Illinois State's 2014 national championship appearance (the actual game was played in January 2015)  with an excerpt from ISU Redbirds Football (published by NIU Press).

No one saw this coming. Picked to finish sixth in the 2014 preseason Missouri Valley Football Conference, Illinois State won a share of the league title, won a school record 13 games and advanced to the FCS National Championship.

No one saw it coming.

Or did they.

“We used that as motivation from the beginning. Since we’re champions now, it looks good on us,” said junior linebacker Pat Meehan after the Redbirds clinched the MVFC crown. “We used that as motivation from the beginning. Since we’re champions now, it looks good on us.”

Head coach Brock Spack said, “It’s very satisfying because you see all the hard work our players and our players before these guys have put in to build a foundation.”

“That sign right there says it all,” said wide receiver Cameron Meredith pointing to a notice that read: Those Who Stay Will Be Champions.

Illinois State and North Dakota State each posted 7-1 conference records and therefore finished in a tie for the MVFC crown. Due to an unbalanced league schedule, the Redbirds and Bison did not play each other during the regular season. NDSU was the three-time defending national champion.

“I’d rather have it outright, but sharing it with them (North Dakota State) is almost just as good. We’re not going to be choosers. We’ll take what we deserve,” Meehan said.

Redbird run

Illinois State took plenty in the FCS playoffs. As the No. 5 overall seed, the Redbirds received a first-round bye. ISU won its second-round game by knocking off rival Northern Iowa, the lone team to defeat the Redbirds in the regular season. ISU gained its revenge with a 41-21 thumping of the Panthers.

A week later, Illinois State traveled to Cheney, Washington and outscored No. 4-rated Eastern Washington 59-46. All-American running back Marshaun Coprich ran for a career-high 258 yards and four touchdowns in the quarterfinal victory.

“I told the players we didn’t come here to get a ribbon for participation,” Spack said afterward.

In 2012, Spack’s Redbirds saw their season end on the red turf of Roos Field in the same quarterfinal game.

The victory sent ISU to the East Coast to play the University of New Hampshire, the No. 1 seed. Trailing most of the game, the Redbirds rallied to claim a 21-18 triumph that vaulted ISU into the national championship game. Quarterback Tre Roberson broke free for a 47-yard touchdown run to put ISU ahead to stay.

The triumph thrust Illinois State into its first ever national championship game. The Redbirds, 13-1, would face second-ranked North Dakota State, 14-1, in the FCS title game, played in Frisco, Texas, just north of Dallas.

Missouri Valley & National Championship

Thus, the stage was set for an All-Missouri Valley Football Conference final.

“This is the best Redbird team ever. The fact that no other (ISU) team has played for the national championship and the fact they have won two tough road (playoff) games to get there makes that a no-brainer,” said radio play-by-play broadcaster Dick Luedke.



An all-Missouri Valley Football Conference final

An all-Missouri Valley Football Conference final

Longtime sports information director Roger Cushman said, “I thought (previously) that the 1999 team was our best because of its post-season achievements, especially after Kevin Glenn got hurt and freshman Dusty Burk had to move in at QB.

“Now the 2014 team has exceeded that feat and Brock Spack has constructed a solid foundation for continued success. This is the greatest team because of its achievements. It went through the meat-grinder of the nation's toughest FCS conference with only one loss and a co-championship. The toughest? Well, the Valley had five teams in the playoffs and now two are in the championship game. To get there, the Redbirds had to defeat the only team it lost to (Northern Iowa) and then travel coast-to-coast to defeat two top seeds before hostile crowds at No. 4 Eastern Washington and No. 1 New Hampshire. Getting to the title game is the single best accomplishment so far in ISU football history.”

The ISU football office was flooded with national awards. Coprich was named First Team All-American by three different organizations. In addition, Coprich was fifth in the Walter Payton Award balloting and received eight first-place votes. Offensive lineman Jermain Barton landed on numerous All-American lists. Long-snapper Chris Highland was also First-Team All-America. Spack finished sixth in the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year voting.

Northern Iowa head coach Mark Farley—the career leader in coaching victories in MVFC history—praised the ISU defense.

According to Craig Haley of The Sports Network, Farley lauded Illinois State's defense for its ability to run down ball carriers. Big defensive end Teddy Corwin and middle linebacker Pat Meehan earned All-Missouri Valley first-team honors, but Farley says the talent runs deep on a defense that jelled throughout the season.

"Really athletic," Farley told Haley. "You look at the transfer from Ohio State (defensive end David Perkins), he really creates a pass rushing problem, he's got great ability, No. 4. They have the transfer from Oregon (linebacker Oshay Dunmore). They're just getting better each game because the more they're there and playing together, the better they get. And I think the guy that we thought was kind of the guy that made things go for them, (and) they have two really good safeties, he's No. 3 (Dontae McCoy). He really does a nice job, he plays fast, he plays tough, to me he's the quarterback of their defense. And their other safety, No. 1 (Tevin Allen), is really quick as well."

FCS National Championship:  The Thrilling Heartbreaker

January 10, 2015

Both the Illinois State Redbirds and the North Dakota State Bison made history in the thrilling FCS Championship played in Frisco, Texas.

Jon-Marc Anderson (6) and Jermaine Barton (70) celebrate an ISU touchdown.

Jon-Marc Anderson (6) and Jermaine Barton (70) celebrate an ISU touchdown.

For the Bison, it meant an unprecedented fourth consecutive FSC title; for ISU, it meant a cap to the most successful season in Redbird history.

The championship game, which pitted teams from the same conference for the first time in history, proved to be classic that goes down as one of the most exciting in FCS lore.

In the end, NDSU quarterback Carson Wentz carried his team to a 29-27 victory over the Redbirds. Wentz finished the game with 324 total yards (237 passing, 87 rushing) and scored the game-deciding touchdown on a five-yard run with 37 seconds left in the game.

“It was a tremendous football game played by two very good teams. I told our players you didn’t lose the game, you ran out of time,” said ISU head coach Brock Spack afterward.

First-year NDSU head coach Chris Klieman said, “That’s a great football team we were able to beat. A lot of respect for Coach Spack and Illinois State. They’re an unbelievable program and great players. We just made one more play, really, because it was a game of making plays, and we were fortunate to make one more play, and our hats off to those guys.”

ISU took a 7-0 lead when quarterback Tre Roberson found Jon-Marc Anderson for a 13-yard touchdown in the first quarter. However, NDSU pulled away for a 20-7 lead midway through the third quarter.

Yet, just as it did against No. 1-ranked New Hampshire in the national semifinal, Illinois State forged a comeback.

“Roberson ducked a pass rush and threw to a well-covered tight end James O’Shauhnessy, who cast aside two Bison defenders at the 29 and motored 41 yards for the touchdown,” wrote Randy Reinhardt in The Pantagraph.

Following an NDSU field goal, O’Shaughnessy scored again, this time on a three-yard reception with 8:05 remaining. O’Shaughnessy outmuscled a pair of Bison defenders to make the catch.

Trailing 23-21, Illinois State’s defense came up with a key stop, thanks to a sack by Collin Keoshian, a converted fullback turned defensive lineman.

Roberson, whose touchdown run had provided the winning margin against New Hampshire, put ISU into the lead with an exilerating 58-yard sprint with 1:38 remaining.

Tre Roberson

Tre Roberson

“It was a simple zone read,” Roberson said of his fake to tailback Marshaun Coprich. “The end came crashing down on Marshaun. The tackle sealed the end so I was able to run. My job was easy.”

Illinois State appeared to have the defending champions on the ropes. O’Shaughnessy added to his legend by leveling the NDSU returner in a violent tackle on the kickoff. A false start backed the Bison up even further.

However, Wentz completed three passes to freshman RJ Urzendowski on the final drive, including a 33-yarder to the ISU five-yard line. NDSU picked up an ISU blitz on the play and Urzendowski adjusted to Wentz’s throw while Redbird freshman safety DraShane Glass slipped on the turf.

After a timeout, Wentz took a snap out of the shotgun formation, followed his left tackle and broke free from an ISU defender into the end zone.

Keoshian blocked the extra point, which meant a field goal could potentially win the game and championship for the Redbirds.

ISU moved the ball to its own 44, but NDSU linebacker Esley Thorton intercepted Roberson over the middle to secure the title for the Bison.

“My emotions are running wild. This was my last collegiate football game,” said ISU safety Dontae McCoy, who registered 12 tackles. “The taste of defeat is never good. It’s always a sour taste. But we can’t take for granted being in this position.”

Spack concluded by saying, “This has been an unbelievable season for us. These have made history. Our team is a great group of kids and great seniors. We have high character men, and I couldn’t be prouder of them.”


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