The Illinois State Redbirds leave the state for the first time this season in search of not only a win, but also for a consistent offense.
Saturday's game marks the first time that ISU will leave the state this season. Its previous four road games were at NIU, EIU, SIU and WIU. From a historical perspective, the Redbirds never left the state during the 1967 season.
A more pressing matter, however, remains. If this year's Redbirds are to return to the playoffs, then the offense must regroup and up its production.
ISU has posted a 6-3 overall record, thanks mainly to a strong defense that has forced opponents into turnovers. Meanwhile, its offense has essentially played conservatively and relied on the running game.
The Redbirds have certainly been impacted for much of the season by the loss of their top three receivers to injuries. Quarterback Brady Davis has struggled, completing roughly 50 percent of his passes. Following a three-interception game in last weekend's home loss to Northern Iowa, Davis has thrown eight picks on the year (compared to six touchdowns).
"For whatever reason our quarterback was not very comfortable in the pocket," ISU head coach Brock Spack said at his Monday press conference. "He was protected very well (by the offensive line). His pocket presence wasn't very good."
Spack said that has been a point of emphasis for much of this week's practices as the Redbirds prepare for another difficult task, playing at No. 4 South Dakota State.
Offensive coordinator Kurt Beathard outlined what Davis needs to improve upon for ISU to get better in The Pantagraph.
“Stay in the pocket longer and throw what you see. Don’t try to make every single play. He doesn’t have to force a play or make every play a big play," Beathard told beat writer Randy Reinhardt.
With ISU struggling to throw the ball effectively, opponents have loaded up the box to thwart the running game. All-American James Robinson managed just 39 yards in last weekend's loss to Northern Iowa. National writer Craig Haley of STATS noted that the Redbirds are 4-10 when Robinson's rushing is below 50 yards.
As Reinhardt noted, the Redbirds have reached 300 yards of total offense just once in the past five games. ISU averaged 419 yards in last year's 6-5 season.
South Dakota State
The Jackrabbits are 7-2 overall and 4-1 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. SDSU lost 28-21 to the University of Minnesota to open the season. Head coach P.J. Fleck's Golden Gophers are unbeaten heading into Saturday's game with Penn State.
Saturday's opponent has faced its own key injury. Redshirt quarterback J'Bore Gibbs is sidelined with a knee issue the Chicago Philips product sustained during SDSU's 23-16 loss to top-ranked North Dakota State two weeks ago.
Keaton Heide has stepped in for Gibbs. Heide, a true freshman from Wayzata, Minn., was 11-for-19 for 173 yards and a touchdown in last weekend's win over Missouri State.
The Jackrabbits are bolstered by the 1-2 punch of running backs Pierre Strong and C.J. Wilson.
"Their skill players are considerably better than they've been in the past," Spack said.
Strong leads the conference with 975 rushing yards. Strong joins SDSU receiver Cade Johnson and ISU's Robinson (963 yards) on the Walter Payton Award watch list.
"Slasher, bigger guy," Spack described Strong. "He can put his foot in the ground and change direction quickly."
Wilson, who has run for 471 yards, "is a tad faster," according to Spack.
Add in veteran Mikey Daniel and SDSU has three players who have combined for 1,691 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground.
What this game means
For the second consecutive Saturday, Illinois State faces a nationally ranked conference opponent in a game that the NCAA FCS playoff committee is keeping close tabs on.
Eleventh-ranked ISU has six wins with three games left to play. An 8-4 record would most likely get the Redbirds an at-large FCS playoff berth. If ISU is 7-5, the chances would be dicey.
Following Saturday's game, Illinois State returns home to host Missouri State (1-7) and then completes the regular season at Youngstown State (5-4).
Where you can find it
Illinois State at South Dakota State. The game will be televised on ESPN-Plus. On radio, the game will air live on WJBC.com. Kickoff is 2 p.m.