Comeback Cools Hot ISU Start, Ends Redbirds' Season

Comeback Cools Hot ISU Start, Ends Redbirds' Season
ISU wide receiver Anthony Warrum's two touchdowns helped him become the only ISU receiver in school history to post 10 or more touchdowns in back-to-back seasons and the first player to record multiple seasons with 1,000 yards receiving. (Photo courtesy of GoRedbirds.com)

When Illinois State football coach Brock Spack reflected on Saturday’s 31-24 first-round FCS playoff loss to Central Arkansas, the defeat looked a great deal like the Redbirds’ season.

“This game was kind of a microcosm of that, wasn’t it?” Spack said in a postgame interview on WJBC Radio. “Very, very good early, not so good in the middle, we made a push there at the end and then came up a little empty.”

The only 6-5 team in the nation to make the FCS field, ISU used its running game and a stout defense to pull out to a 17-7 lead at halftime Saturday in Conway, Ark.

In the second half, UCA’s defense tightened, the Bears’ special teams created a spark and the offense erupted. That led to UCA scoring 24 fourth-quarter points and sending ISU to a first-round exit.

“They were a team that didn’t quit when we got up, and they were physical on defense,” ISU senior wide receiver Anthony Warrum told WJBC. “They did a much better job stopping the run (in the second half) … and they got us out of our game plan.”

The Redbirds (6-6) started the season 2-0 before sputtering through a four-game losing streak. The team’s 4-1 record in the last five regular-season games led to a spot in the playoffs for a school record third consecutive season.

UCA’s comeback started less than a minute into the fourth quarter when junior linebacker George Odum blocked a punt from ISU’s Reese Attard inside Redbird territory. UCA sophomore wide receiver Jakari Dillard scooped up the loose ball at the 4-yard line and scored to close the deficit to 17-14.

“That was a big momentum shift,” ISU senior linebacker Alejandro Rivera told WJBC. “But we still had the lead at that point by three points. That’s enough to win the ballgame. The defense just came up short trying to stop them in critical situations.”

After forcing a three-and-out, 14th-ranked UCA took the lead with an eight-play, 83-yard scoring drive that culminated in a 2-yard scoring pass from Hildebrand to wide receiver Desmond Smith for a 21-17 lead.

A personal foul penalty on ISU on the extra point proved costly. UCA kicked off from the 50-yard line because of the infraction and pulled off a successful onside kick which resulted in a field goal and a 24-17 lead.

“We helped them with that (comeback),” Spack said. “We had the blocked punt, then a personal foul after the extra point gave them a short field on the kickoff. That opens all the gimmick games up for the kickoff team. They got an onside kick and executed it. You can’t make those mistakes in a game like this.”

Less than 2 minutes later, with 6:22 remaining in the game, ISU quarterback Jake Kolbe hit a wide-open Warrum for a 55-yard touchdown to tie the game.

On its next possession, UCA pinned ISU at its own 1 on a punt by Patrick Ponder. The play proved beneficial when the Bears forced a quick three-and-out drive by ISU. An Attard punt set UCA up at ISU 43 with 2:11 left.

The Bears got a major boost when a swing pass from quarterback Hayden Hildebrand to running back Antwon Wells went for 39 yards. One play later, Wells rushed for a 4-yard touchdown.

UCA’s awakening was explained simply by head coach Steve Campbell.

“I think the guys saw we had 15 minutes left in the season,” he said. “It’s now or never. It’s do-or-die time.”

UCA’s defense allowed only 12 of ISU’s 126 rushing yards in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, the Bears’ offense piled up 262 of its 338 yards in the second half.

“We harp on it all the time,” ISU senior linebacker Alejandro Rivera said. “When the offense gives the defense a lead, the defense is supposed to keep it, whether it’s one point or 100.”

Players Of The Game

Running backs DeMarco Corbin (71) and Jamal Towns (61) combined for 132 rushing yards for the Redbirds. … Senior linebacker Brock Spack had a team-best nine tackles. … ISU redshirt freshman defensive lineman Jason Harris had two of the team’s six tackles for loss.  … UCA sophomore linebacker Raphael Garner had eight tackles, including two for loss. … Senior cornerback Tyler Williams had three pass breakups for the Bears.

Quotes Of The Day

“We showed we belonged here. I’m not saying we shoulda won, but we coulda won this game. I’m very proud of them.” – ISU head coach Brock Spack, whose team allowed three sacks

“All the credit goes to players making plays. At this time of year, it gets down to special people. It gets down to players, not plays.” – Steve Campbell, UCA head coach

“If we take care of business, we win the game by 10 points, and we didn’t.” – Brock Spack

“It’s been such an honor to put on the Redbird uniform. It’s been an exciting four years of my life.” – Anthony Warrum, ISU senior wide receiver

“It was a rollercoaster (season) going from a great first two games and then the downfall, and then the last half of the season, we really picked it up. It says a lot about the team and the players on it.” – Alejandro Rivera, ISU senior linebacker

“We’ll be back next year even better.” – Brock Spack

By The Numbers

10 – Tackles for loss for Central Arkansas, which included three sacks of ISU quarterback Jake Kolbe.

12 – Rushing yards for the Redbirds in the fourth quarter.

18 – Seniors who played their final game for the Redbirds Saturday, including six starters on offense and three on defense.

19 – Number of punts combined in the game, including 10 by UCA.

34 – Career victories for ISU’s senior class, which included back-to-back MVFC titles and three consecutive FCS playoff appearances, a first for the program.

52 – Rushing yards for the Redbirds in the second half after a productive first half on the ground earned them a 10-point lead.

1,031 – Receiving yards this season for ISU senior wideout Anthony Warrum, who recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard  seasons in his final two years.

What’s Next?

Central Arkansas (10-2) visits Eastern Washington (10-1) at 3 p.m. Saturday for a second-round FCS playoff game; ISU opens the 2017 season in September.

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