It has been no secret that this season has not gone completely as planned for Illinois State football. A disappointing performance against top-ranked North Dakota State at home combined with the loss of three key offensive players (Taylor Grimes, Andrew Edgar, Gabe Megginson) from a group that was already struggling had ISU fans scratching their heads and wondering if the Redbirds could rebound.
ISU did just that, as they jumped all over Southern Illinois Saturday in Carbondale for a 21-7 victory. The Redbirds drove down the field in just 2:30 to begin the contest with a James Robinson touchdown, and never looked back.
While Robinson has been able to find success the last couple of weeks on the ground, the passing game is still yet to find its identity.
Quarterback Brady Davis went 13 for 19 for 171 yards and a touchdown, but it was Robinson’s 150 rushing yards that seemed to carry the ISU offense. The ’Birds finished the game with 199 rushing yards, but it was nice to see a more balanced attack than in weeks prior between the running game and passing game.
The ISU offense certainly still has weapons to have a prominent passing attack like we saw in the Northern Arizona game, in which Davis tossed for a career-high 419 yards and two touchdowns, but the pass defenses by ISU’s oppositions have only gotten tougher since that game.
When the offense of the Redbirds struggled throughout the game to consistently move the chains against the Salukis, it was the defense that stepped up.
The defense of the Redbirds had nine team sacks and 12 tackles for a loss in the win Saturday, including multiple sacks in very key spots. Tuvone Clark, Jason Lewan and Romeo McKnight all finished the game with two sacks. Despite allowing 347 yards of total offense to the Salukis, the defense got it done when it mattered most.
A key play in the game, for example, was an interception in the red zone by defensive lineman Brandon Simon to halt an SIU drive and keep the score at 14-0 heading into halftime. When the Redbirds needed a stop from its defense, the defensive unit had an answer. This makes for a solid defensive team, which is needed down the stretch of the season.
Head coach Brock Spack echoed after the NDSU loss that his defense had no push up front, which is unusual for a team that leads the FCS in team sacks with 30.0. It all starts up front, and if the ’Birds can get efficient play from its defensive linemen and linebackers then they will be set up for success in all areas of the game.
The defense feeds off of tough spots, as it displayed against SIU. After the Salukis seemed to have the ’Birds on their heels, the defense responded.
Now entering a favorable stretch of the season, it will be key for the offense to continue to improve and try to find its identity. Until then, the success that ISU will find in the coming weeks starts with its defense.