Illinois State football is in unfamiliar territory these days. The Redbirds have lost three straight Missouri Valley Conference games for the first time in four years.
ISU last posted a win Sept. 18 when the Redbirds outlasted Eastern Illinois 31-24 in Charleston to make Brock Spack the program’s all-time winningest coach.
Since that victory, the Redbirds have lost at Southern Illinois (35-17) and at home to Missouri State (41-20) and North Dakota State (20-0). All three of those defeats have been to nationally ranked teams — two of which were in the Top 7 at the time of the game.
“It’s just consistency. We’ve been really inconsistent with our execution,” ISU head coach Brock Spack said during his media address Tuesday. “It’s been a little frustrating. We’ve got to keep the course and try to find things we’re good at, things we can hang our hat on.”
The last time ISU has experienced such a losing streak came at the end of the 2017 season when the Redbirds dropped the final three games of the season to three nationally ranked teams. Those losses left Illinois State at 6-5 overall and out of the FCS playoffs.
The Redbirds have really struggled on offense. In last Saturday’s shutout loss to North Dakota State, ISU managed just 99 yards — the least by an NDSU opponent since 2017 when Robert Morris had 57 against the Bison.
Illinois State ranks 108th out of 123 FCS teams in total offense.
“We get one thing fixed and another thing crops up,” Spack said. “We’ve got to do things consistently good every single snap.”
Another challenge awaits
The Redbirds next face the challenge of playing South Dakota, No. 15 in both major FCS polls this week.
The Coyotes are fresh off a second straight win against a ranked opponent. It is the program’s highest ranking since 2017 when the team qualified for the FCS playoffs.
South Dakota, 5-2 overall and 3-1 in the Missouri Valley, has knocked off then-No. 15 North Dakota 20-13 at home and then-No. 17 Northern Iowa 34-21 on the road in consecutive weeks.
Linebacker Jack Cochrane was named the Missouri Valley Football Conference Defensive Player of the Week with two interceptions and seven tackles including one for loss against Northern Iowa.
“We talked during the week, last couple of times we played them we turned the ball over a bunch, we knew we weren’t going to be able to do that today. We kind of flipped the scales there, took advantage of some short fields and got the lead,” South Dakota head coach Bob Nielson said afterward.
South Dakota quarterback Carson Camp played his high school football at Normal West. He threw for 221 yards and two touchdowns in the Coyotes’ come-from-behind 27-20 win at Illinois State in the spring opener.
Valley forge & other notes
South Dakota is one of six Missouri Valley teams ranked in this week’s STATS Perform FCS poll. Others include North Dakota State (No. 3), Southern Illinois (No. 4), South Dakota State (No. 7), Missouri State (No. 18), and Northern Iowa (No. 24). North Dakota is just outside the top 25 and receiving votes . . . South Dakota’s Bob Nielson served as Western Illinois head coach from 2013 to 2015, taking the Leathernecks to the playoffs in his final season in Macomb . . . With 400 yards on 65 carries to date, running back Cole Mueller would become the first freshman to lead Illinois State in rushing since Cameron Smith ran for 1,244 yards in 1993 . . . Third down continues to be a struggle on both sides of the ball for Illinois State. The Redbirds are converting just 25 percent of third downs while opponents are successful 51 percent of the time . . . ISU has given up 17 sacks while registering seven on defense . . . The Redbirds have been outscored 99-56 in the second half. If you take away the 28 points in the season opener against Butler, that statistic turns into 99-28.
Where to find the game
Illinois State (2-4, 0-3) at South Dakota (5-2, 3-1) at 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 23. The game will air on ESPN-Plus. The radio call is available online at WJBC.com. https://www.wjbc.com/