Thinning defensive line a major concern for ISU heading into defending national champion’s domain
Friday at 6:35 am
A myriad of reasons has left the Illinois State football team thin in the defensive line heading into Saturday’s Missouri Valley Football Conference road game at defending national champion North Dakota State.
“It’s hard to recover from the losses we’ve had,” ISU head coach Brock Spack said Tuesday.
The 22nd-ranked Redbirds lost two key defensive linemen in last weekend’s 20-10 defeat at third-rated Northern Iowa. Redshirt freshman Jude Okolo and junior Jason Lewan each left the game with injuries. Okolo remains in concussion protocol while Lewan will miss not only the remainder of the spring season but also the fall with a foot injury, Spack said.
ISU had already lost All-American defensive end Romeo McKnight (transfer) and Stephen Podkulski (career-ending injury).
“We’ve also had guys that have decided to move on with life (and forgo remaining eligibility to pursue careers) and it’s just been hard to recover the roster spots with playing in the spring,” Spack added.
Next man up
“We’re trying to get our inexperienced players, the guys who haven’t played much or haven’t played at all, up to speed as fast as we can,” Spack said. “It’s just hard with the schedule that we have, the conference that we play in. It’s very difficult.”
A positive is that Illinois State has redshirt junior John Ridgeway in the middle of its defensive line. The Bloomington High School graduate leads the Redbirds with 13 tackles.
Ridgeway—an All-Missouri Valley Football Conference Honorable Mention selection in 2019—also has two tackles-for-loss, two quarterback hurries and an interception.
Senior Jacob Powell, who previously served as Rideway’s backup, has been shifted to defensive end.
Josh Dinga, a sophomore, took over when Lewan was injured and registered a sack.
True freshman D’Marco Cross and transfers Michael Gomez (Winona State) and Luke McCall (Ellsworth, Iowa Community College) should also get playing time in the ISU rotation.
Scouting North Dakota State
While the defending national champions aren’t at their accustomed No. 1 perch, the once-beaten Bison are still ranked No. 5 in this week’s Stats Perform poll.
North Dakota State (3-1, 2-1 in the MVFC) placed a league-best eight first-team picks on the preseason All-Missouri Valley Football Conference team. The Bison also featured four preseason All-Americans.
Couple ISU’s depth issues in the defensive line with NDSU’s traditionally solid running game, and one can expect the Bison to lean heavily on the ground game again Saturday.
This is the 14th meeting between North Dakota State and Illinois State dating back to 2007. NDSU has won nine straight and leads the series 11-2 including a 9-3 home win in the 2019 national quarterfinals and a 37-3 regular season contest.
The Bison have held the Redbirds without a touchdown for nine quarters dating back to Oct. 20, 2018. ISU’s only win in seven previous trips to Fargo was in NDSU’s 2009 homecoming game, 27-24.
The last time Illinois State opened its conference schedule with an 0-2 record was 2016.
However, the Redbirds rallied to win their final three league games that season and made the FCS playoff field with a 6-5 regular season record.
Where to find the game
Illinois State at North Dakota State kicks off at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. The game is on ESPN+ as well as WJBC AM 1230 / TuneIn.