|Redbirds beat Panthers to earn second-straight winning season|
|Written by Kevin Massoth, Daily Vidette Sports Editor|
|Sunday, 14 November 2010 21:03|
Three yards stood between ISU running back Erik Smith and the end zone with just 1:27 remaining in Saturday’s ISU football season finale at Hancock Stadium.
With a 23-20 deficit staring down the sophomore running back and his Redbird teammates, Smith was able to fight his way into the end zone for a game-winning touchdown to beat in-state rival Eastern Illinois 27-23 on Senior Day.
“Everyone just came together, and everyone was doing it for the seniors,” defensive end Shelby Harris said. “We’ve had a long year, and the seniors led the team, and I can’t thank them enough for what they did for us.”
The non-conference win gives the Redbirds (6-5, 4-4 MVFC) their second-straight winning campaign for the first time since 2005-06, and it gives them a 9-2 home record under head coach Brock Spack.
“That was a back-and-forth football game,” Spack said. “I give our kids a lot of credit. They fought through a lot of adversity, and I’m very happy for our seniors. To lead us to two winning seasons in a row, my hat’s off to them.”
Although the ISU seniors had a major part in Saturday’s victory, it was two sophomores that led the way for the Redbirds. Smith and quarterback Matt Brown paced the ISU offense to 380 total yards.
Although Brown did not throw a touchdown, the sophomore quarterback finished the game 27-41 for 238 yards passing and 33 rushing yards. Brown was a part of several key plays down the stretch for the Redbirds.
One of those plays came late in the third quarter when the Redbirds were facing a daunting fourth-and-nine play. Brown dropped back, scrambled and picked up 15 yards to keep the drive alive. Smith later punched it into the end zone on fourth-and-goal to give ISU a 20-16 lead.
The two fourth down conversions by the Redbirds were part of a five-for-five effort on fourth downs in the game by ISU. Spack knew before the game what type of approach his team would have on fourth downs against the Panthers.
“Those were decisions made before the game,” Spack said. “When we went out there, I knew exactly what I was going to do in those situations, and it worked out very well.”
It only took the Panthers 12 seconds to get on the board in the first quarter. On the first play from scrimmage, running back Mon Williams broke free for a 71-yard run to put the visiting team up by a touchdown.
Midway through the first quarter, EIU added a field goal to make it 10-0, which would later be answered by a field goal by ISU kicker Steven Fetzer with less than a minute and a half to play in the first quarter.
After another field goal by Fetzer in the second quarter, the ‘Birds special teams set the offense up with good field position. With less than four minutes to play in the first half, the Panthers prepared to punt from the ISU 47-yard line. But Shelby Harris broke through the line and got a hand on the ball and it was returned to the EIU 27-yard line.
The Redbirds took advantage of the good field position and running back Ashton Leggett eventually busted into the end zone on a fourth-and-goal attempt from the one-yard line to put ISU ahead 13-10.
ISU’s ability to punch the ball into the end zone on short yardage situations can be attributed to the offensive line, led by senior Chris Riley.
“We take it to another level when it’s fourth and one on the goal line,” Riley said. “When you get down to the goal line, it’s really a test of who wants it more and how hard do you want it.”
According to Spack, the offensive line made great strides throughout the season, and had one of their best performances of the season in Saturday’s win.
“Our line has done a tremendous job,” Spack said. “They’ve gotten better and better.”
ISU only held onto that lead for a short while, as it took the Panthers just over two minutes to score a touchdown when quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo hooked up with receiver Kenny Whittaker with 1:01 left to play in the half.
The second half produced three lead changes with the Redbirds finally icing the game with Smith’s touchdown run with 1:21 remaining.