After last week’s loss to the University of Northern Iowa, the Illinois State University football team badly needed a road upset over No. 4 South Dakota State.
Thanks to four turnovers the No. 11 Redbirds took down the Jackrabbits 27-18. Forcing SDSU’s quarterback Keaton Heide to make mistakes was the x-factor for the Redbirds; Heide turned the ball over three times.
Junior ISU linebacker Dylan Draka placed importance on the five forced fumbles from the Jackrabbits.
“During practice, we preach stripping the ball. We work on trying to get that ball away all week long and this week it worked out,” Draka said. “When we had the opportunity to make plays we took them this week.”
Coming out of halftime down by one (11-10), the ’Birds missed an opportunity leading to a Jackrabbits touchdown. On a scramble, SDSU quarterback Heide fumbled the ball after a hit from ISU defensive end Romeo McKnight.
The Redbirds had the chance to recover – Tuvone Clark had his hands on the ball, but could not maintain possession. The Jackrabbits did not let the second chance go to waste as Pierre Strong Jr. leaped over the line for the 4-yard touchdown rush putting SDSU up 18-10.
ISU followed that with a 32-yard field goal from senior Sam Fenlason.
With time running out in the third quarter, Heide made the first of a series of bad turnovers. Heide threw an interception to Christia Uphoff, who returned it 20 yards. The Redbirds were unable to turn that into a touchdown relying on Fenlason who split the uprights on a 32-yard kick.
Fenlason was gold for the Redbirds, a perfect 4-4 on field goals ranging from the 37-yard line to 43 yards. Fenlason continues his strong season that has seen the senior miss just a pair of field goals (12-14).
With the Redbirds struggling to find the endzone, Fenlason’s kicking made a big difference.
“Coming in I thought it was going to be a defensive game. In defensive games when offenses can’t find the endzone, kicks are huge,” Fenlason said.
After Fenlason’s third good kick of the game, the Redbirds made a huge play. A big hit on the ensuing kickoff to Jaden Janke by Peyton Jones forced a fumble giving ISU the ball back.
The Redbirds did not squander the opportunity and found the endzone on a 1-yard rushing touchdown from senior running back James Robinson pushing the ’Birds ahead 22-18.
Looking for insurance points, the Redbirds went for two on the point-after try. Senior quarterback Brady Davis flipped the ball to offensive lineman Drew Himmelman who walked into the end zone untouched.
“What an athlete he (Himmelman) is. They have been practicing that play all year, they were finally able to use it,” Spack said.
Last week against UNI, Davis struggled mightly completeing 13 of 28 (46.4%) passes for 135 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. But the senior found his footing completing 11 of 17 (64.7%) passes 165 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Davis’ touchdown was a 12-yard pass to Tristan Bailey on the Redbirds’ first drive of the game. The catch was Bailey’s first. Davis also built a connection with tight end Tanner Taula who caught three passes for 47 yards, which led the Redbirds.
“Both are really long athletes. Tristan is really athletic. Tanner is a really hard worker and tough; he deserves this good game, he is a great tight end,” Spack said.
The win moves the Redbirds to 7-3 on the season and 4-2 in Missouri Valley Football Conference play. The Redbirds have been strong on the road with a record of 4-1 away from Hancock Stadium. ISU will return to action at noon Saturday, where it will host Missouri State at Hancock Stadium.