Simply put, Illinois State faces a daunting task in Saturday's quarterfinal round of the FCS playoffs.
Despite losing its starting quarterback to injury in November, the Redbirds have ridden their star running back and an opportunistic defense to consecutive road wins in the playoffs. Now comes the biggest test of all — facing two-time defending national champion and unbeaten No. 1-seed North Dakota State in the FargoDome.
"(We'd) better play better than we did last time, (or) the result will be the same way," ISU head coach Brock Spack said at his Wednesday press conference, referring to North Dakota State's 37-3 thrashing of the Redbirds Oct. 5.
NDSU built a 23-3 halftime lead and never looked back in that game at Hancock Stadium in Normal. The Bison rolled up 482 total yards and controlled the ball for nearly 36 minutes.
Fabulous freshman & fab four
NDSU redshirt freshman quarterback Trey Lance has thrown for 2,356 yards and 25 touchdowns with zero interceptions. As a runner, Lance has scored 11 touchdowns and is the team’s second-leading rusher with 829 yards. A finalist for the Walter Payton Award, Lance has already been named Missouri Valley Football Conference Offensive Player of the Year and Jerry Rice Award winner as the top freshman in FCS.
"He's been amazing," Spack said. "They're smart how they attack people, and how they keep those high-risk throws away. But there's always going to be some throws that are more risky, his outcuts to the field — I call them high risk, low reward for outcuts — but he can throw those things on a rope."
Lance is one of four Bison with at least 600 rushing yards. Senior Ty Brooks leads the team with 853 yards, while junior Adam Cofield (11 TDs) has 695 and freshman Kobe Johnson has racked up 602.
"They're all very capable. They all have very good speed. They're so well-coached. Everyone of them runs the same way; they're coached to do that," Spack said. "When you're able to run the ball like that, you really open up the passing game when it comes to play action."
Spack knows full well how dangerous North Dakota State is when the Bison score first and add to it.
"They get a lead, and that's when you get in trouble," he said. "They can dictate the tempo . . . everything's open to them, the whole playbook opens up. Now, if you get them behind, it might be a little different. That would be very interesting to see . . . but they're very rarely behind."
As first reported by The Pantagraph, ISU wide receiver Andrew Edgar has been cleared medically from concussion protocol and expects to play Saturday.
Edgar, a sophomore out of Chicago's St. Patrick High School, left the Redbirds' victory over Central Arkansas last weekend after hitting his head on the turf.
The 6-foot, 190-pound receiver has been limited to seven games this season due to injuries. Edgar, who has caught 18 passes for 313 yards and four touchdowns on the year, remains ISU's top deep threat. He caught a 33-yard touchdown in the Redbirds' first-round playoff win at Southeast Missouri State.
Head Bison point of view
North Dakota State head coach Matt Entz shared his views on Illinois State at his press conference earlier this week.
"It’s a very good familiar opponent. They’ve won 10 games," the first-year NDSU head coach said. "Solid, solid offensive line. They’ve got a running back (James Robinson) that’s as good as anybody out there. They have a quarterback (Bryce Jefferson) that is managing the football game. He’s doing an excellent job. They haven’t given the ball away.
"They’ll do a little wildcat with him (Robinson), but for the most part it’s QB under center, turn around and hand it to them (running backs). "
When asked about the potential of Robinson carrying the ball 40 times, Entz said, "I would anticipate he (Robinson) would. They’ve rode him this long, they might as well see how far he can get you."
Three key matchups
- James Robinson vs. NDSU defense: Per Sam Herder of HERO Sports, the Redbirds' All-American tailback has carried the ball 153 times in the last five games for 842 yards and four touchdowns. The Bison defense has allowed opponents to rush for an average of 131.4 yards per game and just eight TDs in 13 games.
- ISU defensive front seven vs. NDSU offensive line: If the Redbirds have any chance of winning, they must limit a Bison running attack that has averaged 298 yards per game and 6.5 yard per rush. Illinois State has set a program record with 50 sacks; the NDSU offensive line has allowed only 10 sacks in 13 games.
- ISU vs. NDSU home field advantage: North Dakota State has won 26 straight games in the FargoDome. Since 2010, the Bison are 33-2 in the playoffs (most of which have been home games).
The website 5Dimes has made North Dakota State a 20.5-point favorite earlier this week. It lists the Bison odds at -180 to win the national championship while Illinois State is +35000.
Craig Haley, STATS FCS senior editor, wrote "Illinois State has the size to match NDSU and Robinson isn't wearing down despite the workload, but what the Redbirds have on offense can't match the Bison's firepower. North Dakota State, 35-14."
Both Brian McLaughlin and Sam Herder of HERO Sports picked NDSU as 28-10 winners.
The winner will play either No. 5 seed Montana State (10-3) or Austin Peay (11-3) in a Dec. 21 national semifinal.
Where can I find the game?
Illinois State (10-4) at #1-seed North Dakota State (13-0) at 11 a.m. Saturday in Fargo, N.D. (ESPN-TV, WJBC.com radio).