Second-half surge pushes Redbirds past upset-minded Salukis, 42-21

For 30 minutes on Saturday, it looked like it would be “Upset City” in Carbondale. But that’s why football has two halves.

The No. 6-ranked Illinois State University football team took home a 42-21 win over Southern Illinois, avoiding what would have been a shocking upset with 28 unanswered points in the second half.

The ISU offense was led by the two-headed rushing attack of Marshaun Coprich and Tre Roberson. Coprich was once again a workhorse, finishing with 254 yards rushing, four yards short of his career high, on 29 carries for three scores, while Roberson added 89 yards on the ground and two scores.

“I have to make plays, but I’m still gonna take every play one at a time and my line is doing a great job,” Coprich said.

“We’re a big run offense and Marshaun is a big part of that,” Roberson said. “It’s very important to get him the ball so he can make some plays. The O-Line has been blocking really well and that opens up the pass game.”

Down 21-14 at halftime, the Redbirds (8-2, 6-1 MVFC) seemed to be going nowhere as the Salukis (3-7, 2-5) were shredding up the ISU secondary with their elite passing attack.

But after head coach Brock Spack and the rest of the coaching staff challenged the team in the locker room, the team came out with a completely different mentality in the second half.

“Our pride really got challenged at halftime,” Roberson said. “Coach Spack really did a good job of challenging us and telling us to man up, and I think we responded really well...For us to respond the way we did coming out at halftime [was important]. The defense came out with a great stop, we just fed off the defense, they had a lot of energy and we just wanted to come out and [match] that energy.”

SIU quarterback Mark Iannotti, who leads the Valley in total offense, passing yards and passing touchdowns, tossed three touchdowns in the first half en route to a seven-point lead going into the break.

Iannotti going up against the struggling ISU secondary was the biggest storyline coming into the matchup, and the battle was certainly won by the quarterback, as the do-it-all signal caller finished 42-for-63 for 329 yards and three scores with an interception and 94 yards on the ground on 24 carries.

But in the second half, the Redbirds’ defense shut down the Salukis to remain in a tie atop the Valley standings with North Dakota State.

“We weren’t playing good team defense [in the first half],” senior captain and linebacker Pat Meehan said. “We were playing well in some areas of the defense, but at halftime the guys who were messing up kind of looked themselves in the mirror and stepped up in the second half.”

“We played a great second half,” Meehan added. “That’s the mark of a good team is when you can look yourself in the mirror and say ‘I need to play better.’ And that’s what everyone did on our defense, and as you can see it was pretty effective.”

The offensive game plans could not have been more different heading into the matchup. While the Salukis used their Valley-leading passing game to burn up the turf, the Redbirds stuck to their program’s identity with a grind-it-out rushing attack with a double dose of Coprich and Roberson.

The game was scoreless until Iannotti hooked up with Adam Fuehne from seven yards out for a 7-0 lead, but the ’Birds struck right back with an eight-play, 57-yard drive capped off by an 11-yard run for Coprich’s first score of the day.

The teams traded scores once again as Iannotti found Kyle Newquist for a 14-yard score before ISU backup running back Jamal Towns took a handoff up the middle and outran several defenders for a 40-yard touchdown to knot the score at 14-14.

In the waning seconds of the first half, Iannotti connected with Billy Reed in the back of the end zone to take a 21-14 advantage into the locker room at halftime. Reed, SIU’s leading receiver, finished with 14 catches for 138 yards and the one score.

But the ’Birds came out fired up in the second half, shutting down the Salukis on the opening drive to set the tone for the final 30 minutes.

Roberson, who struggled mightily through the air with a 4-for-13, 88-yard day, hit receiver Christian Gibbs for an explosive 41-yard pass to set up a 23-yard rushing touchdown off right tackle for a score.

Following a fumble recovery by Jalen Battle on the ensuing kickoff, the ’Birds once again pounded it on the ground with Roberson’s second score of the game, this time off left tackle from 13 yards out, to take a 28-21 lead which they would never relinquish.

Coprich added a 22-yard rushing touchdown midway through the third quarter to take a commanding two-touchdown lead, and his 75-yard sprint up the right sideline toward the end of the fourth quarter capped off his hat trick, sending the ’Birds home with the decisive victory.

Roberson did not have a good day throwing the ball, and he has struggled of late, but the quarterback has still been able to make plays with his feet.

“That’s the ability to be a dual-threat quarterback, if it’s not working through the air, you’ve gotta use your legs and start making plays,” Roberson said. “The O-Line did a great job, we were able to get some blocks on the perimeter and we were able to get some things done on the ground.”

Illinois State will now return to Normal for a date with South Dakota (5-5, 3-4) and a chance to claim its second straight share of the Missouri Valley crown. The Redbirds are in a tie with North Dakota State (8-2, 6-1) for first place in the conference and would need a win, along with a loss by the Bison next weekend, to capture an outright conference title.

Kickoff for the Redbirds’ Senior Day against the Coyotes is set for noon Saturday at Hancock Stadium.

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