As the weather finally turns to more seasonal fall conditions, the Missouri Valley Football Conference matchup between Illinois State and Youngstown State also reverts back to a more traditional Midwest style.
“They’re a physical team. We like playing those games,” ISU head coach Brock Spack said at his weekly press conference.
The Redbirds (5-2, 3-1) travel to Youngstown to face Bo Pelini’s Penguins (3-4, 1-3) in a game that features teams at the opposite end of the league standings.
Illinois State rebounded from a pair of losses to unranked teams with a rousing 37-21 Homecoming victory over then-ranked No. 4 South Dakota. The win vaulted the Redbirds into the No. 16 spot in the STATS FCS Top-25 poll, while also moving up to No. 21 in the FCS Coaches Poll.
Meanwhile, Youngstown State has lost three straight games. However, those three losses were by an average of six points. Two weeks ago, Pelini’s Penguins took No. 2 North Dakota State to overtime before falling 27-24. Youngstown State comes in at No. 21 in the STATS poll.
“(Youngstown State’s philosophy is to) control the clock and save your defense,” Spack said. “Win on defense.”
Offensively, the Penguins have played three quarterbacks this year. Senior Hunter Wells, who started the final nine games and guided the Penguins to a 7-2 record last season, has been hampered by an undisclosed injury (possibly a shoulder ailment).
“Both other quarterbacks are very good players . . . very capable guys,” Spack said of Penguin signal-callers Nathan Mays and Ricky Davis.
Wells, however, could return to action against the Redbirds.
“There’s a bit of gamesmanship,” Spack said.
No. 16/21 Illinois State (5-2, 3-1 MVFC) at Youngstown State, at 1 p.m. Saturday. (Game will air on ESPN3.com as well as on the ISU radio network)
Three key matchups
- Time of possession: Both teams prefer to run the ball and wear down the opposing defense. Whichever team is able to do that without turning the ball over probably wins Saturday.
- ISU vs. the road: After starting the year with road wins at Eastern Illinois and Missouri State, Spack’s Redbirds have lost their last two road games (Northern Arizona and SIU). Which way will ISU go at Youngstown?
- ISU vs. a team backed into a corner: Youngstown State, last year’s national runnerups, is in danger of missing the FCS playoffs if the Penguins don’t turn things around and get a win. Head coach Bo Pelini can’t be happy about that.
Last year’s game
Youngstown State defeated the Redbirds, 20-6, in front of 12,570 fans on Homecoming at Hancock Stadium.
The defensive struggle featured 13 punts, 10 of which took place in the first half.
Big play ‘Birds
Illinois State used eight “explosive plays” (runs over 12 yards, passes over 20) to knock off South Dakota last weekend in Normal. Sophomore running back James Robinson produced three of those plays with runs of 14, 47 and 87 yards en route to a career-high 193-yard day.
Receiver Spencer Schnell caught passes and used his speed and elusiveness for gains of 64 and 71 yards. Schnell finished the day with a career-best 191 yards receiving on just seven receptions and scored the game’s first two touchdowns. The performance earned him MVFC Offensive Player of the Week honors.
The other “explosive plays” came on runs by quarterback Jake Kolbe (31) and halfback Markel Smith (14, 22).
Kicker Sean Slattery is 13-for-15 on field goal attempts this season. The senior from Rockford is a perfect 6-for-6 from 40 yards or more.