Spring war of words plays out on fall field Saturday as Illinois State hosts No. 16 Missouri State

Freshman Cole Mueller (21) is Illinois State’s leading rusher as the Redbirds enter Saturday’s conference game with Missouri State at Hancock Stadium. (photo courtesy goredbirds.com)

This past spring’s war of words between Illinois State and Missouri State will finally be played out this fall on the field when the Redbirds host the Bears Saturday at Hancock Field in Normal.

For those uninitiated or for those who have forgotten, ISU was scheduled to open its Missouri Valley Football Conference-only spring season in February at Missouri State.

The game, however, was postponed by Missouri State officials citing “adverse weather conditions, playing field readiness and to ensure a safe environment for student-athletes.”

Then a photo tweeted by Missouri State men’s soccer coach Jon Leamy practicing on their field in the days following the football game’s postponement caught Illinois State head coach Brock Spack’s eye and set off a chain-reaction exchange between the two schools.

“It’s hard for me to believe. I really don’t know what to believe right now,” Spack told The Pantagraph’s Randy Reinhardt at the time. “I don’t get it. That soccer field looked plenty fine for me. I’m not buying it. There should have been a game this weekend. This is about the integrity of football and the integrity of the Missouri Valley. It’s really a bad look.

“We had ice on our field as well, and it’s been taken up very easily. Our administration, our grounds and maintenance people have done a fantastic job here. We planned for something like this.”

A few days later, Illinois State’s football Twitter account posted a video of Spack walking to the middle of Hancock Stadium in Normal with the message that the Redbirds would play “Anybody. Anywhere. Anytime.”

Things further ramped up following Illinois State’s decision in late March to cancel the remainder of its season “to protect the health and safety of the players and ensure their readiness for the upcoming 2021 fall 11-game slate.” 

Missouri State head coach Bobby Petrino countered.

“I don’t know what’s going on there and why they did it,” Petrino said. “I don’t have any comment on them opting out or the reasons for it.

“Maybe their coach owes Missouri State an apology for the fact that we couldn’t play a game because of snow and ice and that he tried to pop off that we had some other underlying reasons — which is totally wrong. Other than that, I don’t have anything to say about them.”

As its spring season wound down, Missouri State displayed the flags of its Missouri Valley Football Conference foes with the exception of Illinois State.

That was then, this is now

During his Monday address with the media, Petrino downplayed his spring demands for an apology.

“Nah, it doesn’t have anything to do with me or their coach,” Petrino said, as published in the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader. “It’s about our players being prepared and playing. You know, my father always told me to ‘speak softly and carry a big stick.’ So I don’t think we need to be popping off about the spring. I’d like to, but I’m not going to.”

In his Tuesday address with the media, Spack only discussed Missouri State as the team his Redbirds are facing Saturday.

“This will be a good test,” Spack said. “Petrino has run his offense for a long time. He’s got a quarterback (Utah State transfer Jason Shelley) that’s very athletic. He’s a difficult guy to keep in the pocket, a very difficult guy to tackle. He runs well.”

Spack further talked about Missouri State being a veteran-laden team with a “good front seven on defense”.

Petrino’s Bears are 2-1 overall and 1-0 after last weekend’s 31-23 win over South Dakota to kick off the Missouri Valley schedule.

Missouri State began its season with a 23-16 loss at No. 22 FBS-ranked Oklahoma State. The Bears followed with a 43-34 win over then-No. 16 FCS-rated Central Arkansas.

Spack’s Redbirds are 2-2 overall and 0-1 in the Missouri Valley after last weekend’s loss at rival Southern Illinois.

Regardless of what was said or wasn’t said this week by Petrino and Spack, you can bet that there will be plenty of things said both in practice and in the locker room before Saturday’s 1 p.m. kickoff.

Young Redbirds in the nest

Spack spent much of Tuesday’s media address discussing the youth and inexperience of his roster. The 13th-year ISU head coach noted that 84 players are freshmen or sophomores.

“Sixty-one freshmen, that includes walk-ons,” Spack said. “Things are out of whack with Covid. It seems you’re either really old or really young without much in between (in your roster makeup).”

Spack added that the Redbirds started freshmen at quarterback (Jackson Waring) and left tackle (Hunter Zambrano) against Top 10-ranked Southern Illinois in last Saturday’s 35-17 road loss. Zambrano later left the game with an injury causing ISU to further reshuffle an already depleted unit.

Last weekend’s box score lists the Redbirds with five upperclassmen starters on offense and seven on defense.

Where to find the game

Missouri State at Illinois State, Saturday, Oct. 2. Kickoff at 1 p.m. The game can be found on ESPN+ and Marquee Sports & WJBC1230 AM & 102.1 FM (ISU radio).

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