3 things we learned: 'Feast or famine' day foils Illinois State opener

3 things we learned: 'Feast or famine' day foils Illinois State opener
Running back Pha'leak Brown of Illinois State led all rushers Saturday with 86 yards in the Redbirds' 27-20 loss to South Dakota. (Photo by VidetteOnline.com)

Bryce Jefferson was at the center of numerous game-changing plays Saturday for the Illinois State football team.

Several of those plays put the Redbirds up three scores in the first half of the spring season opener against South Dakota at ISU’s Hancock Stadium.

Several more plays proved costly for seventh-ranked ISU (0-1) in a 27-20 Missouri Valley Football Conference loss to the unranked Coyotes (1-0).

Jefferson, ISU’s redshirt sophomore quarterback, threw for 280 yards and was the game’s second-leading rusher with 65 yards. But he also threw four interceptions and lost two fumbles in the defeat as ISU turned the ball over seven times as a team.

“The name of the game is don’t beat yourself,” Jefferson said. “We had way too many turnovers. We put our defense in a bad position.”

After Jefferson’s 59-yard scoring pass put the Redbirds up 17-0 early in the second quarter, the team’s next three drives ended with turnovers in its own territory. The result was a 17-17 halftime tie that was part of 27 consecutive points for South Dakota.

“We got control of the game, up 17-0, and the bottom fell out with the turnovers,” ISU head coach Brock Spack said.

Three things Prairie State Pigskin learned from Saturday’s game:

  1. ISU’s pass game is explosive

Jefferson’s arm strength was on full display Saturday with completions of 55, 58, and 59 yards. Seven different receivers caught passes, including a game-high 132 yards on five catches for junior Austin Nagel.

“It was feast or famine for him,” Spack said of Jefferson. “It was really good or it was not so good. He made some great throws. He’ll bounce back.”

  1. Run game is a work in progress

Not having James Robinson in the backfield would be a massive adjustment for any team. For the Redbirds, they leaned heavily Saturday on redshirt freshman Pha’leak Brown, who led all rushers with 86 yards on 17 carries. Forty-one of those yards came in the fourth quarter.

“Pha’leak got it going a little bit,” Spack said. “He was a little jittery early. But it’s asking a lot for (young) guys to come out and be perfect. He played well most of the day.”

Jefferson, known for his running ability, had five carries for 12 or more yards. Redshirt freshman Nigel White added 19 yards on seven carries.

As a team, the Redbirds racked up 167 yards on the ground.

  1. Defense has its moments

The Redbird defense led the nation in 2019 with 52 sacks. They opened the spring season with five against South Dakota from five different players.

Chasing elusive Coyotes quarterback Carson Camp proved challenging at times, and the offense’s seven turnovers put the defense on the field over and over again.

“We’ve got to do a better job of rushing the passer,” Spack said. “We didn’t tackle as well as I thought we could.”

Being on the field after the turnovers added to the defense’s fatigue, according to Spack, and made tackling and getting off of South Dakota blocks more difficult.

What’s next?

The Redbirds travel to Cedar Falls, Iowa, to face Northern Iowa (1-1) at 4 p.m. on Saturday, March 6. The broadcast will be available on ESPN3 and ESPN+.

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