Illinois State comes in on a roll
By Pete Mollica
The Redbirds have won three straight in the Missouri Valley Conference.
YOUNGSTOWN — Illinois State and Youngstown State have a lot a similarities over the last nine season in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
The Redbirds (5-4, 4-2 MVFC) will meet the Penguins (4-5, 2-4) at Stambaugh Stadium in a 1 p.m. kickoff on Saturday. It will be the Penguins’ final home game of the season and Senior Day.
In the last nine seasons the Redbirds have had four losing seasons and have been to the playoffs just once, while the Penguins have had three losing campaigns and also been to the postseason just one time.
Ironically, the lone time both teams reached the postseason was 2006 when the Penguins won the conference title and the Redbirds finished tied for second place. The two teams played each other twice that season with the Penguins winning both games, including a 28-21 victory in the quarterfinals of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs at Stambaugh Stadium.
This season the Redbirds are under the direction of first-year coach Brock Spack, who came to the school after 12 seasons as the defensive coordinator at Purdue.
Illinois State is coming off two straight losing seasons, going 4-7 in 2007 and 3-8 in 2008, but in both years the Redbirds defeated the Penguins.
The Redbirds are on a three-game winning streak, including a 25-7 win over Western Illinois last Saturday. They also beat Indiana State (38-21) and Missouri State (24-14) in that streak. Their other conference win came at North Dakota State, 27-24, while the losses were to South Dakota State (38-17) and Southern Illinois (43-23).
Spack is especially pleased with the way his Redbirds are playing at present.
“We’ve been playing with a lot of energy and we’ve been playing faster and more physical,” Spack said. “We had to figure out what the players could handle both mentally and physically. The game three weeks ago against Southern Illinois was our tipping point. We had enough of giving up the big plays, so we simplified our [defensive] game plan.”
Spack is also excited about where his Redbirds currently stand. With games left against YSU and Northern Iowa the Redbirds could finish in third place in the standings if they win out.
“We are playing very well at present, but we don’t have an easy path the next two weeks,” he said. “It is never easy to go down and win at Youngstown State and I don’t care what their record is, they will be a very tough opponent on their home turf. Then we wind up at home against Northern Iowa.”
“I think we’re ready for the task and we won’t have to wait long to find out.”
The Redbirds, like the Penguins, are passing the football a lot more than running it this season.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Matt Brown (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) has completed 186 of 294 passes for 1,967 yards and 11 touchdowns. He’s been intercepted just six times.
His favorite receiver is senior wide receiver Eyad Salem (6-2, 188) who has hauled in 75 catches for 813 yards and five touchdown. His other wide receiver freshman Tyrone Walker (5-11, 175) has 32 catches for 424 yards and three touchdowns.
The Redbirds’ running game is led by a pair of tailbacks. Senior starter Geno Blow (5-11, 205) has rushed 119 times for 471 yards and four touchdowns, while sophomore Clifton Gordon (5-10, 210) has gained 474 yards on 115 carries and has six touchdowns.
Gordon has had two straight 100-yard games, including 124 yards last Saturday against the Leathernecks.
The Redbirds also have one of the most talented kickers in the conference. Senior Zach Kutch (5-9, 175) last week set a school and conference record with six field goals, four of them over 40 yards, including a career-tying mark of 48 yards. He also had a seventh attempt blocked.