Illinois State faces staunch task in bounce-back game

Head coach Brock Spack’s Illinois State Redbirds face strong opposition in what they hope will be a bounce-back performance.

ISU stumbled out of the gate in its Missouri Valley Football Conference opener last weekend.

“The first axiom of winning is not beat yourself, and that’s exactly what we did,” Spack said after the Redbirds let a 17-0 lead evaporate and fell to South Dakota 27-20.

Saturday brings a chance at redemption but remains a tall task. Still nationally ranked at No. 15 despite their loss, the Redbirds travel to third-ranked Northern Iowa (1-1) for a late afternoon league game.

Done in by turnovers

ISU outgained South Dakota by 147 yards but was -6 in turnovers.

“The bottom fell out with the turnovers,” Spack said in the postgame.

Sophomore quarterback Bryce Jefferson threw for 280 yards but turned the ball over six times (four interceptions and two fumbles).

“We have to be smarter and make better plays. Some of that is definitely decision making,” Jefferson said.

Decision making is something that was certainly addressed this week in practices. The ISU staff also took a “back-to-basics” approach.

“We went back and practiced hard on ball security,” Redbird receiver Austin Nagel said, “After Sunday, we cleared the past game out of our heads and focused on our next opponent and only our next opponent. We don’t dwell too much on the last game. We go over the corrections Sunday.

“We did a couple quick on-field drills. I’m pretty confident that it’s not going to happen like that again. That was our first game in 14 months. Bryce hasn’t been hit. Nobody’s really been hit or tackled to the ground consistently. It’s difficult for us to simulate a game and keep everyone healthy.”

The series

Illinois State and Northern Iowa will meet for the 36th time, with UNI holding a 22-13 lead in the all-time series. ISU has won four of the last seven games against the Panthers, but have not won at the UNI Dome since a 33-21 victory in 2012.

The Panthers won the last meeting between the two teams 27-10 at Hancock Stadium and have won the last two meetings overall. In addition, UNI has held ISU to 110 total rushing yards in that pair of games in which Jacksonville Jaguars rookie sensation James Robinson starred for the Redbirds.

The coaches

Saturday’s game features two of the deans of Missouri Valley football.

Northern Iowa’s Mark Farley is in his 20th season as head coach at his alma mater. Farley is the winningest coach in UNI and Missouri Valley Football Conference history with 160 wins and is the active leader in the FCS with 17 FCS Playoff wins. The Panthers are coming off the first 10-win season since 2011 and first quarterfinal appearance since 2015.

Illinois State’s Spack is in his 12th season as head coach. Spack guided the Redbirds to back-to-back shares of the MVFC title in 2014-15 and an appearance in the 2014 FCS Championship. He has led the ISU to eight playoff appearances overall and is three wins away from becoming the program’s all-time wins leader.

Scouting Northern Iowa

Six Panthers earned preseason All-MVFC honors: quarterback Will McElvain, receiver Isaiah Weston, defensive lineman Jared Brinkman, defensive back Omar Brown, linebacker Bryce Flater and kicker Matthew Cook. Weston and Brinkman also  earned HERO Sports FCS Preseason All-American honors. 

Dom Williams scored two touchdowns, and the UNI defense held Youngstown State to just 135 yards of offense as the Panthers improved to 1-1 on the season with a 21-0 road win over the Penguins last Saturday. The win gave UNI head coach Mark Farley his 100th MVFC win.

Where to find the game

Illinois State at Northern Iowa kicks off at 4 p.m. Saturday. The game is on NBC Sports Chicago and ESPN+ as well as WJBC AM 1230 / TuneIn.

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