Illinois State's season is at a crossroads.
After a promising 3-1 start with only a loss to FBS Northern Illinois in the season opener, the Redbirds were run over 37-3 by No. 1-ranked North Dakota State Saturday before a sellout home crowd in Normal.
“They outplayed us and outcoached us in every phase of the game. They deserved to win it and they did,” ISU head coach Brock Spack said in the postgame press conference. “We made a lot of mistakes the first half, and they separated themselves. Once they separate themselves, it’s really hard to get it back.”
The one-sided victory marked the eighth straight time that NDSU has beaten Illinois State.
The Redbirds were certainly hurt by the loss of their top two receivers, Andrew Edgar and Taylor Grimes, to injury. Opponents are now likely to load the box against the run and force ISU to beat them throwing the ball.
“All week we knew they would be trying to get the ball in 25’s hands," said NDSU defensive end Derrek Tuszka referencing Illinois State All-American running back James Robinson. “Once we could stop him, they are going to have to resort to something else. Then we got after them when they started passing."
Tuszka was a force Saturday, registering five tackles and two sacks.
Illinois State managed to run just 51 offensive plays and averaged three yards less than North Dakota State did when the Bison had the ball. NDSU outgained ISU 482-200.
Illinois State Football Radio Network sideline reporter Craig Bertsche tweeted, "After Saturday, I think there is a wide gap between NDSU and the rest of FCS. This team is faster than previous Bison teams—they play at a different tempo. This was the best NDSU team I’ve seen. They can turn one mistake into a blowout."
Heading into Saturday's game, ISU was ranked as high as No. 6 in one of the national FCS polls. Following the loss, the Redbirds tumbled out of the top 10.
"I thought Illinois State's loss was alarming, even though it was against the best FCS program. I wonder if the Redbirds' injuries at wide receiver will make them relatively one-dimensional with the run game," STATS FCS Senior Editor Craig Haley stated in an e-mail.
HERO Sports Senior FCS Analyst/Editor Sam Herder said, "I’d say the national perception with Illinois State is disappointment. With the two top wide receivers being out, I didn’t feel confident ISU would win [against North Dakota State]. But I thought it would be more competitive and the defense especially didn’t play as strong as I expected them to."
In its first bracket prediction of the season the website nobowls.com projects Illinois State into the 24-team FCS playoff field as an at-large participant. The website states, "Every week's bracket is based on an 'If the season ended today' mindset."
Despite the loss, ISU has reason for optimism. After all, they're not the first team to get handled by North Dakota State, winners of 26 straight games and national champions seven of the past eight years.
After all, Illinois State began its Missouri Valley Football Conference schedule with its toughest game. The Redbirds face instate rivals Southern Illinois and Western Illinois on the road the next two weeks, then host conference foes Indiana State and Northern Iowa to close out October.
"They really need to take advantage of their schedule the rest of the month," Haley said.
The Redbirds don't leave their home state until a Nov. 9 date at South Dakota State. ISU finishes off the regular season hosting Missouri State and then travels to Youngstown State.
"The Redbirds still could be a playoff team, but it’s hard to picture them making a decent run like I did in the preseason," Herder said.