For a team that didn't leave the state for a regular season game until Nov. 9, the postseason has provided plenty of road trips for the Illinois State Redbirds.
ISU (10-4) has won two straight road playoff games, first at Southeast Missouri State and then at Central Arkansas. The Redbirds' road tour continues Saturday with an 11 a.m. quarterfinals date with top-seed North Dakota State in the FargoDome.
"We've just got to play pretty good so we can carry it [momentum] into the FargoDome. It's going to be interesting, isn't it?" ISU head coach Brock Spack told WJBC sideline reporter Craig Bertsche after Saturday's 24-14 win over No. 8 playoff seed Central Arkansas.
Things are always interesting when North Dakota State is involved. As members of the Missouri Valley Football Conference, the Redbirds and Bison play each other nearly every year (the 10-team MVFC has an unbalanced schedule so teams don't always face each other on an annual basis).
NDSU and ISU played at Normal's Hancock Stadium Oct. 5 with the No. 1-ranked Bison breezing to a 37-3 triumph in front of a Family Day crowd of 13,391 fans.
"Definitely it was a tough loss, very tough loss," junior cornerback Devin Taylor told Bertsche.
NDSU took advantage of early mistakes by then-No. 6 Illinois State and ran away with the one-sided win. The Redbirds fumbled on the first drive of the game and the Bison cashed in with a 35-yard touchdown pass by MVFC Offensive Player of the Year Trey Lance. Less than three minutes later, Ty Brooks broke loose with a 53-yard TD run and NDSU never really looked back in building a 23-3 halftime lead.
"They beat us pretty bad, but we weren't disciplined at all," ISU tailback James Robinson told Bertsche. "We took a lot of penalties."
Officially the boxscore from that day shows just two ISU penalties for 10 yards, but there were plenty of Redbird mistakes. Illinois State fumbled three times (losing only one) and converted just 3-of-11 third downs. ISU quarterback Brady Davis was sacked four times while being held to 8-for-20 passing for 121 yards.
Davis has since been sidelined for the season with a knee injury — undergoing surgery last week — leaving the Redbird offense to Bryce Jefferson, a redshirt freshman who has helped guide ISU to the pair of postseason wins.
"I've been doing it my whole life," Jefferson told Bertsche. "It's really not too much to come in with confidence and they [the ISU offense] feed off my confidence as well. So I come in there poised and ready to play."
Jefferson also has the luxury of handing the ball to Robinson, a first-team all-conference player who is on the short list for the Walter Payton Award — as the top offensive player in FCS — for the second straight season.
In the consecutive playoff wins, Robinson has rushed for 507 yards on 78 carries (6.5 average) and three touchdowns. The Rockford Lutheran High School graduate has broken off double-digit runs 17 times (and had another wiped out by a penalty). Adding in three pass receptions, Robinson has had 81 touches on the 129 ISU offensive plays run in the playoffs (62.79 percent).
"We've just got to go out there this next game and play our game like we did today," Robinson said.
Back in October, Robinson rushed for 112 yards on 20 carries with a long of 29 yards against North Dakota State.
"Really they wanted to stop 2-5," Jefferson said of Central Arkansas.
No doubt, North Dakota State will too.