After starting off the season 0-2, the Illinois State football team bounced back with vengeance Saturday, defeating Abilene Christian 31-17 in the newly renovated Hancock Stadium home-opener — 50 years to the date of the facility’s grand opening.
“Opening up the stadium with a ‘W’ — that’s big,” ISU junior defender Mike Banks said. “We wanted to come out here and open up the stadium the right way. We had a lot of fans coming and we didn’t want to let them down, but most of all we didn’t want to let ourselves down.”
“It was a great crowd,” ISU head coach Brock Spack said. “Our stadium was electric and it was awesome for our players being in that kind of environment; we appreciate that and all they’ve done for us.”
In addition to an overall new environment, Spack saw Saturday’s game from a new perspective after he handed over his defensive coaching tendencies to ISU assistant head and defensive line coach Spence Nowinksy.
“I think Spence Nowinsky did a really good job of calling defenses tonight. I’ve been calling defenses, but I thought it was time for me to be a head coach,” Spack said. “It was a lot more fun where I was sitting. It was fun to finally be able to manage a game and be calm and not have to worry about all of the defensive adjustments you have to make.”
“I just felt that because of the makeup of our team, that I needed to be more involved with the entire team. I’ll always be there to help with game planning and help with adjustments; I’ll still coach the linebackers because that’s what I do and it keeps me involved so I know what’s going on, but the system is in place and the guys and our staff know it.”
In the game, redshirt freshman quarterback Blake Winkler made his first-career start, finishing 18-for-25 for 201 yards with one touchdown. He also contributed 10 carries for 34 yards and guided the Redbird offense to season-highs in points (31) and first downs (20).
“What I’ve been impressed with in Blake is [his ability] to make plays when the offense breaks down,” Spack said. “That’s the difference between being just an average college quarterback and being a great one. He did a nice job. He’s a competitor and he’s used to winning.”
Marshaun Coprich added 66 rush yards on 15 carries to the Redbird offense, while Collin Keoshian compiled 54 yards on 16 carries with two touchdowns.
Defensively, David Perkins led the way for the Redbirds with a career-best 2.5 sacks and a team-high six tackles. Pat Meehan followed with six tackles and one sack, while Mike Banks contributed five tackles and forced a fumble. The ISU defense allowed a season-low of 288 yards of total offense.
The Redbirds entered the game with something to prove, scoring just 3:34 into the game on a Keoshian 10-yard touchdown run and an extra point by Nick Aussieker to lead ACU 7-0.
Over 14 plays, The Redbirds would then drive 74-yards to put three more points for the ’Birds to put them up 10-0 at the beginning of the second quarter. But ACU responded with a touchdown of its own at the 10:38 mark to get within three, 10-7, before tying the score at 10-10 on a 27-yard field goal kick.
ISU took the lead again however with 1:48 to go in the half on a Cameron Meredith 19-yard touchdown completion from Winkler to bring the score to 17-10, ISU.
Before closing out the half, freshman Anthony Warrum returned a fumble for 62-yards to put ISU up 24-10 as the clock ran out.
ACU countered in the third quarter on an eight-yard touchdown pass with 3:26 left, cutting ISU’s lead to 24-17. But that would be the last time the Wildcats would score.
ISU tacked on one more score in the fourth quarter on a three-yard touchdown run by Keoshian for his second of the game. ISU pushed toward the end zone over 91 yards through 13 plays to run on the drive, running 6:53 off the clock securing the victory.
The Redbirds will hit the road again next week to take on Missouri Valley Football Conference foe Missouri State at 1 p.m. on Saturday in Springfield, Mo.