3 things we learned: Spack reflects on Redbird victory record, late EIU coach’s impact after rivalry win

Illinois State players douse head coach Brock Spack after the team’s 31-24 victory Saturday in Charleston. Spack became ISU’s all-time winningest coach with the victory. (Photo by GoRedbirds.com)

CHARLESTON – Minutes after Illinois State football players doused Brock Spack with the contents of Gatorade coolers Saturday night to celebrate a historic win, the ISU head coach glanced up at a banner above the east stands are Eastern Illinois University’s O’Brien Field.

Next to the retired numbers of former EIU quarterbacks Sean Payton and Tony Romo is a banner recognizing Bob Spoo’s 25 years as the Panthers’ head coach.

“It’s kind of cool that in some way, maybe he was looking down on me tonight,” said Spack, whose first NCAA Division I coaching job was as a defensive assistant for Spoo from 1987-1990. “He gave me a great opportunity as a young coach.”

That opportunity led Spack to Wyoming, Purdue and Illinois State, where he became the school’s all-time winningest coach with Saturday’s 31-24 victory in the 109th version of the Mid-America Classic rivalry between the Illinois FCS schools. Spack’s 87 career wins in 13 seasons surpasses Edwin Struck for the record.

Spack’s connection with Spoo, who died at age 80 in 2018, and Eastern was a formative part of his career in football.  

Late Eastern Illinois head coach Bob Spoo (left) and Illinois State head coach Brock Spack (right) pose with the inaugural Mid-America Classic traveling trophy in 2011.

“With Coach Spoo, we go way back,” he said. “When I was 18 years old, I was a player at Purdue and he was the quarterback coach. To do it here is kind of a cool thing. I spent four years of my life here.”

Though the Redbirds (2-1) never trailed, they responded in the second half when EIU (0-4) tied the game twice. ISU running back Pha’leak Brown’s 3-yard scoring run with 1 minute, 54 seconds left in the game provided the winning margin.

The victory was the fourth straight in the rivalry series for Illinois State and was the Redbirds’ fourth victory in a row in Charleston.

“It was a really gritty win,” Spack said.

The Redbirds pulled out the victory despite a first-quarter injury to starting quarterback Bryce Jefferson.

On a third-and-two play, Jefferson was tackled on a quarterback keeper and landed on his right shoulder. “It’s unfortunate, because I think he was really locked in,” Spack said.

ISU turned to freshman Jackson Waring, who rushed for a touchdown and completed 5 of 7 passes for 33 yards. “He ran the offense pretty well,” Spack said.

The Redbirds leaned on their bevy of running backs to pile up 239 yards on the ground and control the clock, despite Eastern’s rally.

Redshirt freshman Cole Mueller broke several big runs and gained 144 yards on 16 carries. He credited the offensive line for its work in creating room to run.

“When they open up the holes, it’s my job to make the safety miss,” Mueller said. “That’s how you get the big runs. When they do their job, I’ve got to make sure I do mine.”

Brown and Nigel White combined for 16 carries and 82 yards.

Here are three things Prairie State Pigskin learned about the Illinois State victory:

  1. History lesson

Along with Spoo’s impact, Spack credited former EIU defensive coordinator John Smith with enhancing his knowledge of defensive football.

That knowledge helped Spoo become the longtime defensive coordinator at Purdue, where the Boilermakers played in 10 bowl games in 12 years, including the 2001 Rose Bowl.

“It all started here for me,” Spack said of Charleston. “I was really young.”

A native of Rockford, Spack said the significance of setting the record against another in-state team was also special.

“To do it on a football field in Illinois is kind of neat because I grew up in Illinois,” he said.

2. Winning the momentum game

Amid a second half that saw plenty of game-changing plays, the Redbirds maintained their composure and answered with their own big plays.

EIU scored on a blocked punt return for a TD and also blocked a field-goal attempt. “Every time you play Eastern, you’re going to get their best. That’s what we got,” said ISU senior linebacker Zeke Vandenburgh, who had 10 tackles and a sack.

The Redbirds responded with their own momentum shifting plays, including a 95-yard interception return for the TD by senior cornerback Jarrell Jackson in the third quarter and three fourth-down stops of the EIU offense in the fourth quarter.

3. Injuries piling up

Along with the injury to Jefferson’s throwing shoulder, which Spack called “a sprained AC joint” that put the QB’s immediate future in doubt, the Redbirds were hit with two other injuries in Charleston.

Senior linebacker Brandon Simon, who started four games in the spring for ISU, suffered a knee injury in the third quarter and required two teammates to carry him off the field.

The offensive line, already playing without tackle Peyton Asche (knee) after an injury against Western Michigan, lost center Drew Bones late in the game when he limped off the field.

What’s next?

The Redbirds travel south to Carbondale for a 2 p.m. kickoff Saturday, Sept. 25 against No. 8 Southern Illinois.

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