All year, the response to what the expectations for the Illinois State University football team were in 2015 had the same exact answer from every coach and player: Win a national championship.
All throughout the spring, summer and fall, as the Redbirds completed each offseason workout, grueling practice, training day and film session, their one goal was to be 37 seconds better than last year. We all know what happened. ISU took a 27-23 lead over North Dakota State in the 2014 FCS National Championship game with 1:38 remaining, but squandered the advantage and gave up a game-winning touchdown with 37 seconds left.
Every single Redbird has thought about those last 98 seconds for 326 days. They have had plenty of time to reflect on the pain of that heartbreak.
But now, their one shot at redemption is finally here. It’s time for them to do something about all of the sky-high expectations they beset upon themselves, and they could not be in a more perfect position to make it happen.
The ’Birds have been gifted with the No. 2 overall national seed for the FCS Playoffs following a hard-fought 9-2 season that saw them capture their second straight share of the MVFC title – the first time in program history they have accomplished two consecutive conference championships – while going 7-1 in the “SEC of the FCS.”
The seed guarantees them home field advantage throughout the playoffs, a luxury that no other team will enjoy more (not even No. 1 overall Jacksonville State) as the Redbirds currently own the FCS’ longest active home winning streak with 18 straight wins.
What everyone wants to know is, can this year’s version get back to Frisco, Texas – site of the championship game – for a second time? Not only can they get back there, but can they bring the title trophy home to Normal?
In short, yes. Absolutely. But there are several “ifs” in that convoluted puzzle.
At this point, we all know the offense runs through All-American running back Marshaun Coprich. Last week the senior earned his second consecutive MVFC Offensive Player of the Year award after piling up 1,720 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns – both ranked No. 2 in the FCS. Coprich is also one of three finalists for the FCS STATS Offensive Player of the Year.
Coprich will get his carries and be productive throughout these playoffs. But IF he does not break loose, that provides a huge problem the ’Birds may not be able to solve.
The main reason he has needed to shoulder such a heavy workload is because the second part of ISU’s potent one-two offensive punch has been struggling. Quarterback Tre Roberson, who was recently named to the All-Valley First Team, has fallen off during the last few weeks of the regular season.
No, not on the ground. He is still as sharp as ever there, rushing for 630 yards and nine scores this season – including 273 yards and three TD over the last three contests. But he has simply not been good through the air.
He is currently 84-for-175 for a 48 percent completion percentage and 15 TD — numbers down from a 138-for-248, 56 percent, 21 TD line through 11 games last season.
Maybe it is the thumb injury he has battled all season, or the rigors of knowing he was getting everybody’s best shot every single Saturday. Whatever it is, it needs to change in a hurry, because 29-for-75 with a 4:3 TD:INT ratio isn’t going to cut it.
IF it is true that he is as fully healthy and confident as he says, the ’Birds should breeze right through the semifinals where a potential rematch with No. 3 seed North Dakota State for the opportunity to go to the title game awaits. IF he cannot figure it out, teams will scheme to make Roberson beat them with his arm, making him and the entire Redbird offense one dimensional.
ISU’s pass defense has been much maligned this season after graduating a trio (Tevin Allen, Mike Banks, Dontae McCoy) who worked in great tandem and were supreme leaders on the field. This year has been much more nerve-racking for Redbird fans, as those three have not been there to backend the last line of defense. And now with starting safety Alec Kocour out for at least a month with a broken clavicle, it will be even more short-handed in December.
The secondary’s best game from an eye test standpoint was against South Dakota State. Even though it gave up 321 yards through the air, it racked up three interceptions – two by Kocour – and forced the SDSU quarterbacks into a 16-for-33 day. The pass rush in that loss to the Jacks was virtually non-existent, as it could not get any push up front, and when it did, elusive Jacks quarterback Taryn Christion scrambled and found open receivers.
IF the front seven do not bring enough pressure up front, the Redbird secondary will be forced to hang on and cover its receivers for more than four seconds – an exercise in futility – which it had to do against the Jacks. IF it brings the heat and force shorter, quicker throws, it should be all roses.
Clearly, there several extenuating circumstances and “What-If” factors for the Redbirds heading into this year’s playoffs. But one thing is not debatable: the Road to Frisco runs through Normal.
Western Illinois (7-5) at No. 2 Illinois State (9-2)
Hancock Stadium/1 p.m.
Game will be streamed live on ESPN3 with Michael Reghi (play-by-play) and Dustin Fox (expert analysis) on the call while Dick Luedke (play-by-play) and Ted Schmitz (expert analysis) will have the call on WJBC 1230-AM.
Players to Watch
All Redbird fans know about the exploits of RB Marshaun Coprich, the two-time Missouri Valley Football Conference Offensive Player of the Year. But ISU’s success is just as dependent on QB Tre Roberson and whether or not he can find the form that he has lost.
On the flip side, WIU has a beast of a running of their own in 6-foot, 240-lb Nikko Watson, a giant bowling ball who provides a stark contrast in Coprich's running style. If the ‘Birds get to Watson before he gets a full head of steam they should be fine, but if he gets running downhill he can run over defenders and break long runs. Also, look for the matchup on the outside as one of the most talented receivers in the nation, Lance Lenoir, will be matched up throughout most of the day against ISU cornerback Josh Burch. Lenoir torched the Redbird secondary in their first matchup with 11 catches for 131 yards and a score.
On paper it looks like the Redbirds’ 48-28 win over the Leathernecks on Oct. 24 was an easy blowout win, but it was far from it. ISU used a 65-yard TD pass from Roberson to Anthony Warrum as part of 27 unanswered points in the second half. You always have to be wary of a rematch with a team you beat in the regular season and this one is no different in that regard. It's going to be extremely intriguing whether each team tries to use the same game plan that worked in the first go-round or if they make adjustments based on what went wrong last time.
One thing that will be different this time around is the quarterback situation for WIU. Trent Norvell, the team's starting signal caller for most of the year, will not be playing due to an appendectomy undergone in early November. Sean Maguire -- no, not Robin Williams from "Good Will Hunting," -- will be starting just his fourth game of the season. But it would be foolish to act as if that's a big advantage for the Redbirds. Maguire threw for 332 yards and 282 yards, respectively, in wins over Indiana State and then-No. 5 South Dakota State to end the regular season and help the 'Necks sneak into the playoffs as the last team in. He struggled against Dayton in the first round, but a win is a win is a win. Make him uncomfortable in the pocket with a hot and heavy pass rush and it will be a long day for Maguire. Let him sit there all day and it will be a quick exit for the Redbirds.
Illinois State 35, Western Illinois 28
This is going to be a hell of a lot closer than Redbird fans would like to believe. The Leathernecks gave the 'Birds a great game back in Week 7, and could have absolutely won that game if not for the second half explosion for the ISU offense. That explosion included Roberson lighting it up with deep passes, but that big-play connection has been starting to wane these past couple weeks -- yes, it was a snow bowl against South Dakota, but that doesn't help explain Roberson's dud against a horrible Southern Illinois defense. The weather is expected to be in the 50s for the game, and I'm putting my money -- not literally, of course -- on Roberson finding his form again and banging home some deep explosive plays to Warrum and Christian Gibbs.
ISU defensive coordinator Spence Nowinsky usually comes up with solid schemes to stop great running backs and this week should be no different. Watson was held to just 53 yards on 18 carries in the first matchup and it won't be much different this time. With Maguire still learning the ropes and being more dependent on Watson to jumpstart the offense, look for the 'Birds to stack eight in the box at times, and to bring heavy pressure with the front seven to keep the behemoth bottled up for minimal gains. If they can do that and force long third down attempts they will be in for a good night.
Still, the Redbirds' defensive backfield has been suspect this year and will give up some big plays to WIU receivers Lenoir and Joey Borsellino. They will put up their fair share of points, but it won't be enough to match the ISU offense as the 'Birds advance to the FCS Quarterfinals.