Clutch performances are no stranger to Illinois State University senior running back James Robinson. The Rockford native, who is coming off of a career-high 297-yard rushing performance in a first round FCS Playoff win over Southeast Missouri State, has had nothing short of a remarkable career at ISU.
Saturday was no different for Robinson, as he led ISU with 210 rushing yards on 37 attempts and scored two touchdowns, igniting the Redbirds into the FCS quarterfinals with a 24-14 win at Central Arkansas.
“We played really well,” ISU head coach Brock Spack said. “I was proud of our team, really good team effort. We ran the ball really well and played very good defense again.”
Robinson scored a 51-yard touchdown with 10:55 left in the first half to give ISU a 14-0 advantage early in the game. The Bears had a tough time slowing down Robinson and the potent rushing attack of the ’Birds throughout the entirety of the contest.
“They (UCA) seemed more physical,” Robinson said. “I know a team like this hasn’t seen an offense like ours. They knew we were going to come in running the ball, obviously. But we knew this (Southland Conference) was a big passing league, so I liked our advantage.”
Robinson’s other score came with 1:13 remaining in the second quarter on a two-yard run to extend ISU’s lead to 21-7.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Bryce Jefferson again stepped in nicely as the starting field general in place of the injured Brady Davis, finishing going 6 for 11 for 75 yards (all in the first half). An 18-yard jet sweep from Austin Nagel got the ’Birds on the board at 7-0 with 14:05 left in the second quarter.
“I’ve been doing it my whole life,” Jefferson said. “We came into this game knowing that they like to play, man, but they’re going to try to stop the run. So we had shots put it and we had to make it happen.”
Jefferson attempted just two passes in the second half after his top target in redshirt sophomore Andrew Edgar left the game with concussion-like symptoms. Edgar had caught two passes for 20 yards prior to the injury.
The defense of the Redbirds played huge as well in the contest, as they picked off UCA quarterback Breylin Smith three times, including the game clincher by Clayton Isbell with 0:52 remaining. ISU held Smith to 198 yards passing despite him holding a passing average of over 300 yards per game previously.
“It was a big task,” redshirt junior defensive back Devin Taylor, who also had an interception earlier in the game, said. “We knew they had a couple good receivers, a good quarterback, and we just had to disguise coverages and get them flustered in the backfield.”
A key turning point in the game by the defense came on a fourth-and-two as UCA had traveled all the way to the ISU 22-yard line. The Redbirds stuffed the Bears on a rushing attempt and regained possession up 21-7 with 7:52 remaining.
After a roughing, the kicker penalty kept the drive alive for Jefferson and company, and the ’Birds added a Sam Fenlason 24-yard field goal with 4:06 left to make it a three-score advantage.
The Bears struck back on a one-yard toss from Smith to Luke Ross to make it 24-14 with 1:32 left, and stayed alive by recovering an onside kick shortly after. Isbell’s interception of Smith moments later sealed the deal for the ’Birds. Smith finished the game completing 24 of 33 passes for 198 yards and a touchdown.
UCA’s leading receiver and the Southland Conference Freshman of the Year Tyler Hudson managed just three receptions for 36 yards. The Bears finished with 256 total yards of offense, 198 of which came through the air.
"It was quite an accomplishment to shut them down," Spack said. "I thought we had them really rattled at halftime. Our secondary can really cover, it was really a great effort. We were able to hone in on their passing game and we did a really nice job."
"This will be an interesting game coming up," Spack said of his team's matchup with the Bison. "You mention our defense, I think that (the NDSU game) is the one game they don't think they played very well in. We want to get another shot at these guys and see if we can play better."