NUTS AND BOLTS
No. 2 Illinois State (10-2) cannot expect a repeat performance of last week’s second round game against Western Illinois to get them a win against the Spiders. For the first 35 minutes against the Leathernecks, the ‘Birds were lethargic, out of sync and seemed to be sleepwalking through the game. But after going down 12-7, they turned on the jets and outscored WIU 29-7 in the last 25 minutes of the game. Redbird fans want to see more of that second half effort on Friday.
No. 7 Richmond (9-3) is coming off a very impressive 48-13 win over William & Mary in the second round. This will be a battle for conference supremacy as each team thinks their respective conferences (ISU = Missouri Valley Football Conference; Richmond = Colonial Athletic Association) are the best in the nation.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
The Redbirds boast one of, if not the best running back in the FCS in Marshaun Coprich. The MVFC Offensive Player of the Year and FCS Offensive Player of the Year finalist has rushed for 200-plus yards in three straight games (PSA: that’s ludicrous). He will be looking to lead the ISU offense with his fourth consecutive 200-yard performance.
On the other sidelines, the Spiders are led by their own outstanding back in Jacobi Green, who ranks in the top five nationally in both rushing yards (1,426) and rushing touchdowns (18). Green is more of a traditional back who uses outstanding vision as his greatest strength to see holes and plow ahead. He isn’t the biggest of running backs, but he uses his running style to rack up 6.1 yards per carry.
BROCK SPACK (ILLINOIS STATE HEAD COACH) COMMENTS
“Their [running] back (Jacobi Green) is probably the best back we’ve seen since Youngstown State and maybe since Iowa. He’s a very good player, I really like him. He’s from Ed White High School in Jacksonville, Fla., and I know a lot about Ed White because I recruited that area for 20-some years. He’s a tremendous football player coming from that area. … They’re a really good football team, very balanced.”
DANNY ROCCO (RICHMOND HEAD COACH) COMMENTS
“[Our defense] is designed to fit their offense well. We should be in good shape as far as being in good spots and not getting outnumbered. But we’ve gotta tackle these guys, they’re very gifted. …We played [CAA Offensive Player of the Year] Vad Lee when he was healthy, and I don’t think Tre [Roberson] is Vad Lee.”
THREE KEYS TO WIN
For all of the exploits and explosiveness that Coprich has shown, the Redbirds’ playoff success truly hinges on one person: QB Tre Roberson. The senior All-Valley first teamer has shown he can get it done with his legs, but as soon as opposing defenses take that away from him he has gone flat. Ever since back-to-back solid performances through the air against Youngstown State and Missouri State in the middle of the year, he has been awful throwing the ball. He needs to get out of that rut, focus and hit his targets.
Last line of defense
It has been well-documented how much the Redbird secondary has struggled this season. While the defensive backs have not played consistently well – and they will be even more short-handed playing without starting safety Alec Kocour (broken clavicle) – they need a great deal of help from the pass rush in this one to put pressure on QB Kyle Lauletta.
Defend the home turf
ISU has the longest home winning streak in the nation at 19 games. Even though the fan support in terms of attendance last week against Western Illinois was dreadful, there is still a huge home advantage in playing at Hancock Stadium. There is no fatigue from traveling, no getting stuck on airport tarmacs and you get to play in the most comfortable environment possible. The 'Birds need to make the most of it.
If it ain’t broke, don’t break it
Richmond retooled their offensive attack this season compared to last. In 2014 they used a shotgun, spread attack but this year they have gone with a more traditional, pro-style approach under center. According to Rocco, Green is better suited as a traditional tailback and not as a zone read type of runner. In that case, keep doing what you’ve been doing all year and go at the ‘Birds with Singleback and I-Formation sets.
Green is a sensational talent out of the backfield who can take deep handoffs, read the defense and burst through the hole before taking it to the house. But the second part of the one-two offensive punch from Richmond, QB Kyle Lauletta, also has plenty of flair. Lauletta is ranked 10th in the nation with 3,058 yards passing and has thrown 17 touchdowns (against 12 interceptions, though). He is best suited to play under center and use his arm to lead the Spiders' offense as opposed to Roberson’s way of zone reads and getting outside the pocket.
Survive on defense
Don’t read into this wrong, Richmond has a very good defensive unit. Led by Omar Howard and Andrew Clyde, they have a strong set of guys that can stop just about anybody. But they are going against one of the best rushing attacks in the nation on Friday. The Spiders need to do enough on defense to limit the ground game and force Roberson to beat them.
Illinois State 31, Richmond 17
Roberson is adamant that his broken thumb has completely healed and he has been throwing without a thumb brace for the past couple games. He says the thumb feels fine, but consistent play has yet to show up on the field. Gut feeling here says he pulls himself out of the funk he is in and pours it on. The ISU defense will do enough to shut down a one-two offensive punch (Lauletta-Green) that rivals the Redbirds’ own (Roberson-Coprich)
But give Lauletta time in the pocket to dissect the suspect Redbird secondary and it will be all roses for the Spiders. Here’s guessing the Redbird front seven stuffs Green on runs, forcing Lauletta to air it out where the ISU pass rush will be effective in forcing him into shorter throws.
Streamed live on ESPN3 at 6:30 (CT) with Dick Luedke (play-by-play) and Ted Schmitz (expert analysis) on the call for WJBC AM-1230.