Redbirds Primed and Ready for Playoff Road Challenge

Redbirds Primed and Ready for Playoff Road Challenge
The play off Illinois State's offensive line is one of the keys to the Redbirds' chances against Central Arkansas.

While the FCS calendar says that the first round of the playoffs begins today, it started much earlier for Brock Spack’s Illinois State Redbirds.

For ISU, the playoffs started in late October. Following a narrow loss at South Dakota which dropped their record to 3-5, the Redbirds were in must-win mode to even be considered for the actual 24-team FCS playoff field.

In perhaps his finest coaching moment, Spack rallied his team. ISU closed the Missouri Valley Football Conference regular season with wins over nationally ranked opponents South Dakota State and Western Illinois and punctuated it with a shutout rout of improving Missouri State.

The late season winning spree, combined with losses by other FCS contenders, earned ISU what many perceive as the final spot in the playoff bracket. Nonetheless, the Redbirds are making their seventh trip to the playoffs–and the fourth under Spack.

“There’s a sense of pride. We expect to be in the playoffs, and I think we absolutely earned it,” Spack told the Bloomington Pantagraph. “I think there is a feeling among the players that ‘we deserve to be here and we’re going to prove it to you.’ “

Senior offensive lineman Cameron Lee certainly feels that way.

“We were able to compete even when things were tough,” Lee said. “To be able to claw our way back into the playoff picture after being written off by so many people so long ago speaks to the character and the resiliency of our team.

“This is far from the storybook senior year that I expected, but it’s been a wild ride and I wouldn’t change it. And knowing that at any moment everything can all come to an end makes it mean so much more because you know you have to make the most of all of the time you have left.”

The Game

Illinois State (6-5 overall, 4-4 MVFC) at Central Arkansas (9-2, 8-1 Southland), 2 p.m. kickoff at Estes Stadium in Conway, Ark.  Video coverage available on ESPN3; Audio coverage on WJBC Radio.

Opposing notes

Central Arkansas finished second to Sam Houston State in the Southland Conference after losing to the Bearkats in Huntsville, Tex. last weekend. Until running into the red-hot and undefeated Bearkats, UCA had one of the nation’s longest winning streaks at eight games.

The UCA Bears are led by seven first team all-conference selections:  wide receiver Desmond Smith, offensive lineman Stockton Mallett, all-purpose player Jatavious Wilson, defensive lineman Jordan Toliver and defensive backs Tremon Smith, George Odum and Tyler Williams. In addition, quarterback Hayden Hildebrand, offensive lineman John Austin Cook, defensive end Cardell Best, defensive back Devin Spurlock and punter Patrick Ponder were named to the second team.

Central Arkansas is 14th nationally in total defense. The Bears have the best scoring, total and run defense in the Southland Conference.

Opposing quotes

“To be able to play at home is big. We’re excited about the opportunity, understanding that Illinois State is an outstanding football team. But, we’re excited about the opportunity to play again, and to play at home.”

–head coach Steve Campbell, in his third season at UCA

The Rankings

UCA is ranked No. 14 in the latest STATS FCS poll after losing its most recent game to No. 1-rated Sam Houston State.

Illinois State is unranked.

Three Key Matchups

  1. ISU offensive line vs. UCA defense:  The veteran-laden Redbird line faces a stiff challenge in a Bear run defense that ranks tops in the nation. UCA enters the playoffs allowing only 67.9 rushing yards per game. The Bears have given up just seven rushing touchdowns all season. Three all-conference performers patrol the defensive backfield.
  2. Turnovers:  Often the defining statistic in playoff football. Central Arkansas is +5 on the year in the turnover game; Illinois State is -1 but much better of late.
  3. Penalties:  UCA has been bitten by the yellow flag, whistled for 94 penalties on the season. ISU has 48 penalties in comparison.

Rare bye brings healing to ‘Birds

Though he was not initially excited about not playing the final week of the regular season due to a scheduling quirk that resulted in a rare bye week, ISU head coach Brock Spack was thankful for the time to rest and heal his team.

“I would have loved to have had a bye before we played (and lost to) Indiana State, before that stretch there,” Spack said. “It really hurt us because (quarterback Jake) Kolbe got hurt. He had to play for three straight weeks where he didn’t practice much and you could tell.”

Kolbe, who sustained an injury to his throwing shoulder against Eastern Illinois the week prior to playing at Indiana State, has returned to form. The sophomore out of Naperville Central has thrown for 2,495 yards this season, seventh best on the single-season ISU list.

“That stretch in the middle of the season where Jake had his shoulder issue, you’d see just how much pain he was in,” senior receiver Anthony Warrum said. “He’s so tough, he was trying to take the field every time, but you’d see him throw the ball and grimace every time. That hurt us. Now you see the way he’s continued to grow and see how much better we are.”

Meanwhile, true freshman James Robinson–the career rushing leader in Illinois State High School Association football–has practiced and is expected back from a hamstring injury and will bolster the Redbird run game. Robinson was coming off two consecutive 100-yard rushing games when he left the South Dakota game Oct. 22 with his injury.

Chasing History

Senior wide receiver Anthony Warrum is just 44 yards shy of his second straight 1,000-yard season. Warrum leads ISU with 57 catches for 959 yards and nine touchdowns.

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