3 things we learned: Defense saves the day for Redbirds, ending 3-game losing skid

The Illinois State defense held South Dakota 16 points below its season average Saturday in the Redbirds’ first MVFC win of the season. (Photo by GoYotes.com)

With crowd noise rising in the DakotaDome, South Dakota’s offense playing at a speedy tempo and Illinois State’s defense trying to catch its breath, holding onto their first Missouri Valley Football Conference win of the season seemed uncertain for the Redbirds in the fourth quarter.

“It wasn’t looking good,” senior cornerback Jarrell Jackson told WJBC radio Saturday about the team’s game in Vermillion, S.D. “They were wearing us down. We had guys cramping up.”

Despite the circumstances, the Redbirds stopped 15th-ranked USD on fourth down inside ISU’s 10-yard line with just over 2 minutes remaining in the game then Jackson intercepted a pass five plays later to help Illinois State hold on for a 20-14 MVFC victory and break a three-game losing streak.

“It’s a big win on the road,” ISU head coach Brock Spack said. “It was just a matter of time. We finally got one, had a few things go our way. We played very physical in all phases of the game. That’s how you win in the Missouri Valley.”

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

  1. Defensive throwback

In an effort that featured elements of the dominant 2019 ISU defense, the Redbirds (3-4 overall, 1-3 MVFC) held South Dakota 16 points and nearly 120 yards below their season averages.

A big hit from linebacker Shanon Reid knocked USD starting quarterback Carson Camp out of the game in the second quarter.

On the next six South Dakota drives, Illinois State forced four punts. On another drive, ISU linebacker Kenton Wilhoit leaped for an interception and returned the ball 20 yards for a touchdown, giving the Redbirds a 20-7 third-quarter lead.

Illinois State held South Dakota to its second-lowest yardage total (269) for the season. The Coyotes (5-3, 3-2) managed 266 yards in their season-opening loss at Big 12 Conference member Kansas.

2. The real deal at RB

Redshirt freshman running back Cole Mueller has three 100-yard games this season. All three have been Illinois State victories.

Mueller did his part Saturday by rushing for a career-best 178 yards on 25 carries, his most in a single game. He broke off a 69-yard scoring run early in the second quarter to give ISU a 10-0 lead.

“The O-line opened up a ginormous hole,” he said. “I know I can trust my speed.”

After missing the spring FCS season because of injury, Mueller leads the Redbirds with 578 rushing yards while averaging 6.4 yards per carry.

His 90 rushing attempts this season are more than double that of second-leading rusher Pha’leak Brown’s 43. If Mueller continues to lead the way in the ground game, he will become the first ISU freshman to lead the team in rushing since Cameron Smith, who rushed for 1,244 yards in 1993.

3. Pass game problems

Sophomore quarterback Bryce Jefferson put up his best completion percentage of the season Saturday, connecting on 14 of 19 passes (73.7%).

But the ISU passing game managed only 84 total yards and Jefferson was sacked four times. Only two pass plays went for longer than 15 yards.

The ISU offense continued to sputter on third downs, converting only 3-for-13 opportunities on the day. The Redbirds converted on just two of their eight third-down passing attempts.

News and notes

Kicker Aidan Bresnahan booted a 47-yard field goal in the first quarter, which was a career long for the junior Nazareth Academy grad. Bresnahan also was good from 42 yards in the first half. … South Dakota blocked an ISU punt and field goal Saturday. … Wilhoit and safety Clayton Isbell led the team with seven tackles each. … Defensive lineman Braydon Deming had two of the Redbirds’ six tackles for loss. … Reid forced a fumble, broke up a pass and compiled six tackles. Linebacker Jeremiah Jordan recovered the fumble for ISU. … In its first four MVFC games, the Redbirds faced four ranked teams with a current combined overall record of 22-7. Over their final four league games, the opponents currently have a combined 12-18 record.

What’s next?

Illinois State travels to Western Illinois for a 3 p.m. game in Macomb on Saturday, Oct. 30.

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