3 things we learned: Defense saves the day for sack-happy Illinois State against No. 13 UNI
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Beating No. 13 Northern Iowa, 17-10, in overtime Saturday wasn’t exactly a work of art for Illinois State.
But the Redbirds’ second win over a ranked Missouri Valley Football Conference team in the past three weeks was the result of a beautiful defensive effort and a timely throw from a young quarterback.
“It never felt like it was under control, believe me,” ISU head coach Brock Spack told WJBC radio after the game. “It just goes to show what we can do. We just made a few more plays than they did.”
After the Redbirds surrendered a 10-0 lead in the fourth quarter, freshman quarterback Jackson Waring connected with junior receiver Austin Nagel in the corner of the end zone from 27 yards out on the second play of overtime to provide the winning score.
From there, as was the case all day long, ISU leaned on its defense.
The Redbirds (4-5 overall, 2-4 MVFC) forced incompletions on third and fourth downs by the Panthers (5-4, 3-3) in overtime and completed the upset with an on-field celebration. On Oct. 23, the Redbirds beat then-No. 15 South Dakota, 20-14.
Saturday’s defensive effort was highlighted by sophomore safety Clayton Isbell of St. Charles, who returned a first-quarter interception against UNI’s Theo Day 40 yards for a touchdown, and junior linebacker Zeke Vandenburgh of Freeport, who had a career-high 14 tackles and two sacks.
Isbell and the secondary had a tough day, according to Spack, in last weekend’s 38-31 loss to in-state rival Western Illinois.
“You like to see guys that can learn from their mistakes and move on,” Spack said. “Clayton did not play well last week. He’s a tremendous athlete, and that (interception) was a great play.”
Vandenburgh had a career-high three tackles for loss for the Redbirds, who had nine total for the game. He also had two of the team’s six sacks.
Waring started at quarterback and was 9-for-22 passing for 87 yards. Spack’s favorite stat about Waring, however, was simple.
“No turnovers,” he said. “That was the key. I didn’t think he threw anything up for grabs. There wasn’t anything close to a turnover for him. Their quarterback made a mistake (on the interception) and our freshman didn’t.”
Here are three things Prairie State Pigskin learned about the Illinois State victory:
Defense rules the day
The day was all about pressure for the Redbirds, who consistently hassled Day, a Michigan State transfer. ISU’s six sacks and nine tackles for loss was the team’s output of the season.
Entering the game, the Redbirds had 10 sacks and 31 tackles for loss in eight games combined. UNI converted only five of 17 third-down conversions, three of which came in the fourth quarter.
Through three quarters, the Panthers had 130 total yards. While desperately trying to get back in the game in the final period, UNI gained 127 yards on two scoring drives. The Panthers rushed for only 1.5 yards a carry on the day, gaining 63 yards on 42 carries.
2. Offense sputters once again
Six first downs, 164 total yards, 2.2 yards per rush and 3-for-17 on third downs.
Those numbers won’t win many football games, but provided just enough in Saturday’s win.
Leading rusher Cole Mueller, a freshman, had 51 yards on 27 carries against the stingy Panthers, who entered the game ranked 24th in FCS in total defense, led by a stout defensive front.
Winning consistently will take more production from ISU’s offense, which ranked 116th nationally in passing (among 123 teams) and 112th in total offense entering Saturday’s game.
3. Special teams studs
Junior kicker Aidan Bresnahan nailed a 44-yard field goal just before halftime to give ISU a 10-0 lead. The kick was his sixth made field goal of the season in nine attempts.
Senior punter J.T. Bohlken has a busy day with a career-high 12 punts for a 43-yard average. He help ISU win the field goal position battle as UNI’s average drive started on its own 27.
Bohlken had four punts downed inside the UNI 20 and two over 50 yards.
News and notes
A laundry list of plays had career days on defense, including Vandenburgh, sophomore defensive back Iverson Brown (nine tackles) and sophomore cornerback Franky West (eight tackles). … Redshirt freshman linebacker Jeremiah Jordan had two sacks in the game for the Redbirds. … UNI’s Day finished 15 of 30 passes for 252 yards. Of that total, 60 yards came on one deep pass to wide receiver Isaiah Weston in the fourth quarter that set up the game-tying TD with 2:35 remaining in the game. … A block in the back call negated a long punt return by UNI with less than 2 minutes left in the game. Deion McShane returned the ball inside the ISU 5-yard line, but the penalty took the ball all the way back to UNI’s 20.
The Redbirds travel to Grand Forks, N.D., for a 2 p.m. kickoff against North Dakota on Saturday, Nov. 13.