Prolific pass rush drives Illinois State defense

Prolific pass rush drives Illinois State defense
Illinois State linebacker Tuvone Clark (6) and defensive end Jason Lewan (94) are part of a pass rush that has piled up a school-record 50 sacks this season. (Photo by Barry Bottino, Prairie State Pigskin)

Long before Illinois State’s defense set a school record with 50 sacks this fall, players on both sides of the ball knew it would be a special group.

Before the season, junior quarterback Brady Davis admitted he had to throw the football into the ground on several occasions in fall camp to avoid the team’s relentless rush.

“Going against our offense, our offensive line and (All-American running back) James Robinson, we get a lot of good practice,” sophomore defensive end Jason Lewan, who has three sacks, told Prairie State Pigskin. “That has made us a lot better. One of our goals was to improve our pass rush this season.”

The Redbirds (10-4), who play No. 1 North Dakota State at 11 am. Saturday (ESPN) in the FCS national quarterfinals, have created a pass rush that has made opponents take note.

Eleven different players have at least two sacks, led by junior defensive end Romeo McKnight’s 12. The Redbirds had only 15 sacks last season.

North Dakota State head coach Matt Entz isn’t surprised at how prolific the Redbirds have been.

“It’s not a surprise that a Brock Spack-coached team is going to be really good on defense,” Entz said at his weekly press conference. “They’re confident right now. They’ve had a couple of big (playoff) wins back to back.”

Accounting for ISU’s pass rush was top of mind this week for the Bison (13-0).

“They do bring some pressure,” Entz said. “That will be the piece we really need to work on this week. Hopefully we can make them pay for bringing pressure.”

Illinois State defensive end Romeo McKnight, shown pressuring Western Illinois QB Connor Sampson, has a team-leading 12 sacks for the Redbirds. (Photo by Barry Bottino, Prairie State Pigskin)

Illinois State defensive end Romeo McKnight, shown pressuring Western Illinois QB Connor Sampson, has a team-leading 12 sacks for the Redbirds. (Photo by Barry Bottino, Prairie State Pigskin)

One of the most difficult adjustments for defenses to make is just where the pressure comes from.

Along with an active defensive line, ISU’s sacks have regularly come from the linebacker group that features senior Tuvone Clark (6.5 sacks) and sophomore Zeke Vandenberg (five). In the secondary, senior safety Luther Kirk (three) leads the way.

“Every guy just loves to get to the quarterback, which is why we’ve had so much success at it,” Lewan said.

Up front, McKnight has the third-most sacks in a single season in school history. Though he doesn’t have a sack this season, 325-pound nose guard John Ridgeway often gets plenty of attention from opposing linemen to free up teammates to rush.

“Those guys are just competitors,” Lewan said of his linemates. “We play with maximum effort and everybody is doing their job fast and violently.”

The Redbirds are facing a highly decorated quarterback in NDSU redshirt freshman Trey Lance, who is a finalist for the Walter Payton Award as the top offensive player in FCS.

Lance has completed 69 percent of his passes, thrown 25 touchdowns and zero interceptions. When forced from the pocket, he has run for 7.1 yards a carry and 11 touchdowns.

“We’ve just got to get guys there,” Lewan said. “He’s had a great season, but we’re just going to dial up our pass rush like we do.”

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