Robinson, Redbird defense send Illinois State into playoff quarterfinals

Robinson, Redbird defense send Illinois State into playoff quarterfinals
James Robinson (25) rushed for 210 yards and two touchdowns as Illinois State advanced in the FCS playoffs Saturday. (photo courtesy

“They’re going to be under center, they’re going to try to play a physical brand of football, turn and hand the ball to their tailbacks.

“They want to establish the run and establish the line of scrimmage. And I can’t say enough good things about James Robinson. To have 4,000 yards in your career is impressive. He is a legitimate NFL prospect.

“They’re going to look like they’re supposed to look like. They’re going to have a big offensive line, a big defensive front.”

–Central Arkansas head coach Nathan Brown prior to Saturday’s playoff game with Illinois State


Even when you know what’s coming, it doesn’t mean you can control or stop it.

That was certainly the case Saturday in Conway, Ark. when Illinois State used its tried-and-true brand of football to knock off No. 8 national seed Central Arkansas. For the second straight week head coach Brock Spack’s team again rode the running of senior All-American James Robinson and a stout defense to victory.

“We played really well,” Spack told WJBC’s Craig Bertsche after the game.

The win sends the Redbirds (10-4) into the quarterfinals against No. 1 seed North Dakota State (13-0). NDSU defeated defeated Nicholls State 37-13 Saturday.

Three things we learned from ISU’s playoff win:

1. James Robinson continued his incredible playoff run.

A week after rushing for a school and conference record 297 yards, Robinson ran for 210 yards and two touchdowns. Added together, the Rockford native has gone for 507 yards on 78 carries (6.5 average) and three touchdowns. Against Central Arkansas, Robinson broke loose for double-digit runs eight times, including a 51-yard second quarter touchdown.

Illinois State spent much of the game confusing the Central Arkansas defense by pulling different combinations of its offensive linemen.

“We knew this was a big passing league [UCA plays in the Southland Conference], not many teams run the ball like we do against them so I like our advantage,” Robinson told Bertsche.

Robinson also caught two passes for nine yards and delivered a key seal block when receiver Austin Nagel scored the first ISU touchdown on a jet sweep.

Robinson’s running also allowed redshirt freshman quarterback Bryce Jefferson — making just his second career start — to complete some key first-half passes.

“We came into this game knowing they liked to play man (-to-man defense) so they could try to stop the run, so we had shots [downfield passes] put in so we had to make them happen,” said Jefferson, who completed 6-of-11 throws for 75 yards.

“He missed a couple of long balls (but) his ball was very, very good. His arm was really strong,” Spack said. “He was close of both of them [incompletions].”

2. Illinois State’s defense shut down Central Arkansas’ passing game.

Central Arkansas entered Saturday averaging 392.9 yards per game — mostly through the air. Disguising both its pass coverage and its defensive fronts, Illinois State made the Bear offense look lost for much of the game.

“This offense is difficult (to defend) and we had the quarterback (Breylin Smith) really rattled,” Spack said.

Devin Taylor

Devin Taylor

The Redbirds held Central Arkansas to 256 yards of total offense — 70 of which came on the Bears’ late-game touchdown drive (including a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty that nullified an ISU interception). The Redbirds held UCA to 198 passing yards [the Bears came into the game averaging over 300 per game].

ISU gained four turnovers, three coming off interceptions. The Redbirds sacked Smith four times, establishing a new team record with 50 sacks in a season.

“We had to disguise coverages and get them flustered in the backfield,” said cornerback Devin Taylor, who led ISU with five solo tackles. The junior also had an interception and three pass breakups.

3. ISU again played disciplined football.

For the second straight playoff game, the Redbirds were flagged for just three penalties.

Meanwhile, Central Arkansas committed eight infractions for 95 yards. Many of the UCA penalties came at inopportune times.

In the 2016 playoffs, Illinois State gave up 24 fourth-quarter points and lost 31-24 at Central Arkansas.

“That was a Christmas present, you know, and it was ridiculous,” Spack said of that loss three years ago. “That’s been my motto all season: the first axiom of winning is don’t beat yourself. You do that by penalties and turnovers. You’ve got to possess the ball and have great ball security. You have to be able to eliminate penalties.”

What’s next?

Illinois State travels to Fargo, N.D. to play unbeaten North Dakota State Saturday, Dec. 14. Kickoff is set for 11 a.m.

The Bison — winners of seven of the last eight FCS titles — cruised past Illinois State 37-3 Oct. 5 in Normal during the Missouri Valley Football Conference regular season.

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