3 things we learned: Running game, defense spark Illinois State's first spring victory

Illinois State’s Nigel White (20) rushed for a game-high 112 yards as the Redbirds defeated rival Western Illinois Saturday at Hancock Stadium. (photo courtesy Illinois State Athletics)

Normal—The 103rd meeting between rivals Illinois State and Western Illinois produced the first . . . and the 11th . . . and the 85th.

ISU built a 16-point lead and posted a 26-18 Missouri Valley Football Conference victory over WIU Saturday afternoon. The win was the first of the season for the Redbirds (1-3). The Leathernecks remain winless (0-4).

“I’m very proud of this team,” ISU’s Brock Spack said in the postgame. “Our goals were offensively to control the ball and score, and they did that.

“We wanted to control the passing game (on defense). We tackled well.”

The 12th-year Redbird head coach is 11-2 against Western and also picked up his 85th career victory. Spack is two wins from becoming Illinois State’s all-time leader.

Three things Prairie State Pigskin learned from the ISU triumph:

  1. The Redbirds ran to victory

Illinois State used the 1-2 punch of Nigel White and Pha’leak Brown to control the clock and power past Western.

White led all rushers with a career-high 112 yards on 14 carries. Brown chipped in 108 yards and a touchdown on 21 attempts.

“The offensive line did a helluva job blocking and getting to the secondary level,” said White, who had no negative-yard rushes on the day.

Cole Anderson

Brown actually gained more yards — 113 — but also lost five. His one-yard TD run accounted for the game’s first score.

The last time Illinois State had two 100-yard rushers in the same game was Oct. 13, 2018 when James Robinson (207) and Markel Smith (143) accomplished the feat in a 51-3 romp over Southern Illinois on Homecoming.

As a team, the Redbirds rushed 56 times for 274 yards and two touchdowns. ISU did much of its damage on the right side of the line behind guard Trey Georgie and tackle Cole Anderson.

“I’m comfortable running both sides,” White said. “Me and Pha’leak are roommates. We strive and push each other.”

2. First-half defensive dominance

ISU also turned in a strong performance on the other side of the ball — particularly in the first half.

The Redbirds held the Leathernecks to just 84 total yards and a long field goal in the game’s first two quarters. ISU forced Western to punt seven times and recorded three sacks as the Redbirds built a 14-3 halftime lead.

“We dropped eight a lot and rushed three,” ISU senior linebacker Brandon Simon said. “Our goal was to attack along the perimeter and (give up) no leaky yardage and tackle in space. We did an excellent job of that today.”

Further evidence is ISU holding a commanding 20:24-9:36 advantage in time of possession at the break.

Spack said, “We didn’t get a ton of sacks because this guy (WIU quarterback Connor Sampson) gets rid of the ball; he’s got a quick release. He did a lot of three-step drops and threw the ball quickly. But we were able to flush him and screw up their timing a little bit with that.”

3. Fresh faces contribute

Like many teams playing this spring, Illinois State has taken roster hits through injuries, transfers and players opting out to prepare for potential professional careers.

In fact, earlier this week ISU held a pro day for several of its former players to show their skills to NFL scouts.

Nevertheless, the Redbirds got key plays out of players thrust into new roles such as Joey Lombardi, Jalen Carr, Tristan Bailey and Jabari Khepera on offense; Josh Dinga, Michael Gomez and Damien Jackson on defense.

“We’re getting a lot of them playing time in critical situations and doing well developing depth for the future,” Spack said.

News & notes

Tight end Tanner Taula caught his second touchdown pass in as many weeks . . . In addition to the 1-2 tandem of White and Phe’leak Brown, sophomore Kevin Brown rushed four times for 42 yards and a 25-yard touchdown in the second half . . . Quarterback Bryce Jefferson gained 30 yards rushing (net of 5 yards due to 3 sacks); the sophomore completed 17-of-23 passes for 167 yards and a touchdown . . . Taylor Grimes had five catches for 85 yards, including a long of 58 yards . . . Spack is 85-53 in his career at ISU.

What’s next?

Illinois State plays at South Dakota State March 27. The sixth-ranked Jackrabbits are coming off a 44-3 rout of No. 5 Southern Illinois in Carbondale.

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