A slow start against top-ranked powerhouse North Dakota State Oct. 5 quickly led to a 16-3 first quarter deficit that Illinois State could not overcome in a 37-3 loss to the Bison.
In a game that saw the Redbirds sack Southern Illinois (2-4, 0-2) nine times, No. 13 ISU (4-2, 1-1) got out to an early lead and never looked back in its 21-7 victory over the Salukis on a cool evening at Saluki Stadium in Carbondale.
ISU looked poised from the very beginning despite being in enemy territory, as it quickly got on the board with a two-yard plunge by senior running back James Robinson to give the ’Birds a 7-0 lead. The opening drive for the Redbirds lasted just over 2:30. Robinson led the ISU offense with 150 rushing yards on 31 carries and a touchdown.
“Nothing really changes with James (Robinson), we have to get him the ball,” ISU head coach Brock Spack said. “I think we have a really nice rotation going at tailback. We’ve done a good job of hanging on to the football and not turning it over.”
The defense of the Redbirds stood tall for much of the game, forcing the Salukis into many tough third and fourth down plays. ISU’s defense looked especially tough in the opening half, as SIU managed just five first downs and 119 total yards of offense and zero points heading into halftime down 14-0.
Junior quarterback Brady Davis, who finished the contest going 13 for 19 for 171 yards and one touchdown, connected with sophomore receiver Austin Nagel for another two-yard touchdown to extend ISU’s lead to 14-0 with 7:46 left in the second quarter.
A promising SIU drive just before halftime was stalled after a key interception by ISU defensive lineman Brandon Simon in the red zone.
The Redbirds were again able to get things going quickly to begin the second half, as Trenton Hatfield recovered a Landon Lenoir fumble on the opening kickoff of the half.
A Sam Fenlason 43-yard field goal was no good, and the Salukis immediately responded. Running back Romeir Elliott took the next play 74 yards to the house to pull the Salukis to within one score at 14-7 with 12:55 left in the third quarter
Defensive stops in crucial spots were key for the Redbirds in the second half as well, as just moments later the Salukis elected to boot an onside kick and pounced on the ball to retain possession. But, a sack on third down by junior defensive end Romeo McKnight halted the SIU drive. McKnight led the Redbird defense with two sacks.
“That was a great answer by our defense I thought,” Spack said. “They came back and responded really well after a disappointing play. Responded well after a tough and hard kick to defend. Our defense played well and we were able to get a shut-down and get the ball back.”
McKnight also had a sack of quarterback Karè Lyles late in the third quarter to halt an SIU drive. Lyles finished the game going 20 of 30 for 199 yards and an interception.
The lone touchdown for the Redbirds in the second half came shortly after, as Davis rolled to his right and cruised in for a six-yard rushing touchdown to against extend ISU’s lead to two scores with 4:40 left in the third quarter. The touchdown was Davis’ second rushing score of the season.
It was the defense again that came up huge in the fourth quarter for the Redbirds, as it stuffed Lyles on a fourth-and-25 run late in the fourth quarter. Key penalties on the drive combined with a late hit on the ensuing possession by SIU allowed ISU to seal the deal. The Redbirds ruled the time of possession in the contest, as ISU held the ball for 33:26 compared to SIU’s 26:32 possession time.