Illinois State Redbirds preview
What’s their history?
The Illinois State football program began in 1887, when they split three games against Illinois Wesleyan (really, they did: 1-1-1). This so boggled the minds of the “Teachers” that they didn’t field a team again until three years later. Unfortunately, they went right back to the same well, going 2-2 over the next two years with all four games against Illinois Wesleyan. After another year off, they finally figured out that they didn’t have to play all their games against the same team, and went 3-3 in against six different teams 1893, though four of those opponents were local high schools.
From 1912 through 1969, they played Illinois Wesleyan every year except 1918, 1925, and 1937 (though they played twice in 1938 to make up for it), eventually competing in the Illinois Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, which later became the Interstate Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (of which EMU was also a member from 1950 through 1961). In 1970 the Redbirds became an independent, and they never played Illinois Wesleyan again. They joined the Missouri Valley Conference (and subsequently the Missouri Valley Football Conference) in 1981.
The Redbirds are 3-32 against FBS/Division I-A opponents, though one of those wins came at EMU’s expense. Remember when we said that the last time these teams met was 1981? Remember what EMU football was like in 1981? ‘Nuff said. The other two wins were over Western Michigan (1987) and Akron (1991). Go MAC.
After bad years in 2007 and 2008, the team seems to be back on track. Last year they finished 7-4, and just missed going to the playoffs when they lost their season finale to Northern Iowa in double overtime. Those four losses were by a total of 27 points, with the largest being a 10-point loss at eventual national champion North Dakota State.
What about EMU?
The Hurons competed against the Redbirds almost annually from 1935 through 1962, and again from 1975 through 1981. In the 1950s, when the teams were in the same conference, EMU dominated the series, going 7-2-1. Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse for EMU after that point, and after leaving the IIAC, EMU went 2-6 against Illinois State, losing the last four games (see above comments about EMU football circa 1981). With the series nicely split at 12-12-6, the teams went their separate ways, and meet this weekend for the first time in 31 years.
Who’s on the sideline?
In his fourth year as head coach of the Redbirds, Brock Spack seems to have things moving in the right direction. After a combined 7-15 record in Denver Johnson’s final two seasons (2007 and 2008), Spack has led the team two three consecutive winning seasons, going 7-4 last fall. A 19-14 record in the Football Championship Subdivision may not sound like much, but Illinois State plays in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, home to FCS powers like Youngstown State (national champions in 1991, 1993, 1994, and 1997), Northern Iowa (national runners-up in 2005), and defending national champions North Dakota State. Schools currently ranked in The Sports Network’s poll from the MVFC are #2 North Dakota State, #6 Youngstown State, #8 Northern Iowa, #18 Illinois State, and #23 Indiana State. Call it the SEC of the FCS.
Spack played college football in the early 1980s at Purdue, where he was a first-team All-Big Ten and honorable mention All-America linebacker. His coaching experience includes time as an assistant coach at Wabash College, Eastern Illinois, and Purdue, followed by two years as defensive coordinator at Wyoming (1995-96) and 12 years as defensive coordinator at Purdue (1997-2008).
For starters, Spack is his own assistant coach, serving as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. I guess that’s how it is in FCS. Luke Huard, a 2002 North Carolina alumnus, is the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. The top defensive coach after Spack is assistant head coach Spence Nowinsky, a 1995 Minnesota State alumnus, who coaches the defensive line.
What have they done lately?
Last week they had no trouble with Dayton, cruising to a 56-14 victory. The Redbirds dominated the Flyers thoroughly on both offense (quarterback Matt Brown threw for three touchdowns while two running backs rushed for more than 100 yards each) and defense, though not so much on special teams, as the Flyers returned a punt 77 yards for one of their touchdowns. They’re ranked #18 in the TSN poll and #19 in the FCS Coaches Poll.
Who makes tackles?
The Redbirds boast a stout run defense that gave up just 85 rushing yards per game last year (#5 in FCS), and only allowed 34 rushing yards to Dayton last week. The strength of this defense seems to be the defensive line, with Nate Palmer, Colton Underwood, and Shelby Harris all garnering pre-season accolades. Linebacker Evan Frierson is also one to watch; after playing for Illinois in 2009 and 2010 he was kicked off the team following an arrest for aggravated battery (out late on a Saturday night, he allegedly punched two men who were standing in a crosswalk as cars tried to drive through, and one of the victims required medical attention). As is so often the case, it’s easy to find the initial story about the arrest, but hard to find out the outcome of the case. One way or another, he transferred to Illinois State, where his 66 tackles and 6.5 sacks in 2011 ranked second on the team and earned him a first-team All-MVFC spot and made him a 2012 FCS pre-season All-American (College Sporting News).
The possible weakness in their defense is the secondary, which features a senior, an inexperienced junior, and two sophomores. Their special teams are also questionable; last week they gave up a 77-yard punt return for a touchdown, though they also blocked a punt and took it in for a touchdown, so maybe that’s a wash.
How do they score?
Quarterback Matt Brown is in his fourth season as starter for the Redbirds. His career stats as a passer are fairly impressive: 7,400 yards, a 65% completion rate, and 54 touchdowns to 24 interceptions. He’s not a prolific ball carrier — he averages about three or four carries per game — but he did score two rushing touchdowns last year. Senior receiver Tyrone Walker is Brown’s top target (6 catches for 69 yards last week; 64 catches for 787 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2011), but Lechein Neblett (6 catches for 62 yards and 2 touchdowns last week) is also worth keeping an eye on.
They’ve also got a pair of dangerous running backs in senior Darrelynn Dunn and junior Cameron Hunt. Last week against Dayton, the two combined for 247 net yards and four touchdowns on 39 carries (6.3 yards per carry).
The offensive line might be the weak point; all five of last year’s starters are gone. The entire line, including backups, came into 2011 with a total of 25 career games played, 17 of which belong to center Pete Cary. Seven of the ten players had never played a single snap before this fall.
As Jeremy mentioned yesterday, this is a must-win game for EMU. The Redbirds are a dangerous FCS team, and certainly better than either of the teams the Eagles hosted last year. They have an explosive offense led by experienced playmakers, and a solid defense. As long as EMU plays reasonably well, they should be able to win this one, but it’s not unimaginable that EMU could come out flat, fall behind quickly, and then find themselves unable to come back. With that said, I feel reasonably comfortable predicting an EMU win; let’s call it 31-24.