It seems as though we all had higher hopes for Illinois State this season when the team sat at No. 2 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
The ’Birds surprised, surpassed and seemed unstoppable in their first six games.
Clicking on all cylinders early on, it was a much simpler time when junior quarterback Brady Davis collected his third MVFC Newcomer of the Week award. Running back James Robinson ran for his fourth 100-plus yard game as the Redbirds soared to a 5-1 record.
Then came North Dakota State, and out went the season.
Granted, it was predicted the No. 1 MVFC-ranked and still undefeated Bison would not make it easy for the ’Birds at the Fargodome.
However, a fighting chance late in the game carried over into ISU’s next three contests, ultimately falling short in all that remained.
Illinois State did the improbable; repeating the same yet disappointing outcome of a year before.
A disheartening loss to South Dakota State in Week 9 led to offensive complacency as the Redbirds found life too late against both Northern Iowa and Indiana State.
The last time the Redbirds lost four games in a row was in 2016, when ISU stunned Northwestern by way of placekicker Sean Slattery’s heroism.
While the door shut on Illinois State’s playoff chances in Terre Haute, Indiana, Saturday, Redbird fans were left with one question on their minds: Where did it all go wrong?
As ISU head coach Brock Spack has constantly spoken on the inexperience of most of his offensive line, now at 5-5 and 2-5 in Valley play, age is only a number in the eyes of playoff contenders.
A young quarterback in Davis, who won the starting job in fall camp, has the skill to reach a level of peak refinement.
Looking ahead, the ’Birds clash with the Youngstown State Penguins Saturday on Senior Day, presented as a proving ground for the prize of the team’s ninth winning season in 10 years.
Amid ISU’s playoff shortcomings, the bigger picture of the program resides in the minds of both Spack and his young squad.
“I think the program is in great shape,” Spack said. “I think the team is in a really good spot. We have a lot of guys back next year. Our quarterback [Brady Davis] will have all offseason … so we’ll have a chance to work him [more].”
Despite the departures of seniors Spencer Schnell, Tylor Petkovich, Zack Mathews and Mitchell Brees, the Redbirds find solace in seasoned returners Davis and backfield bulldozers James Robinson and Markel Smith.
Saturday’s game may be a send-off to the senior class, but the looming anticipation of “next year” could be something more special than expected.