3 things we learned: Offensive funk proves costly as Redbirds stumble to 4-7 finish
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It took 71 seconds for the Illinois State offense to put the Redbirds in control Saturday in the team’s regular-season finale against Indiana State.
In the 58-plus minutes that followed, ISU’s offense managed only three points and 240 yards in a 15-10 Missouri Valley Football Conference loss at Hancock Field to the Sycamores, who won in Normal for the first time since 1997.
“We have to go back to the drawing board,” Illinois State head coach Brock Spack told WJBC radio after the game, expressing particular frustration with the passing game. “Some of it is protection, some of it is receiver speed and a lot of it is quarterbacks. We are light years away from being able to throw the football the way you should in Division I football.”
Illinois State finished 4-7 overall – its most losses in a season since going 3-8 in 2008 under then-head coach Denver Johnson – and 2-6 in the MVFC. Indiana State completed the season 5-6, 3-5.
Junior wide receiver Austin Nagel’s 40-yard touchdown catch from freshman quarterback Jackson Waring at the 13:49 mark of the first quarter was cause for celebration. But the Redbirds punted on the next five consecutive drives before a 34-yard J.T. Bohlken field goal put Illinois State up 10-0 just before halftime.
In the second half, Indiana State quarterback Kurtis Wilderman rushed for a pair of touchdowns – including a 1-yard plunge with 3:58 left in the fourth quarter that provided the winning margin.
With Illinois State driving in the final minute near midfield, Waring connected with Nagel on a 15-yard pass for a first down. But Rylan Cole, a freshman safety for the Sycamores, ripped the ball loose and Indiana State defender Jalen Moss recovered to seal the victory.
Here are three things Prairie State Pigskin learned about the Illinois State loss:
Offense lacks a punch
For the third consecutive week, Illinois State scored only one offensive touchdown in a game.
The Redbirds were 4-for-14 on third down Saturday and stumbled in the second half as its five drives resulted in two punts, an interception, a turnover on downs and the fumble in the final minute.
Waring finished 17-for-31 passing for 194 yards and a touchdown. He also threw an interception and was sacked four times.
Redshirt freshman running back Cole Mueller led all rushers in the game with 99 yards on 20 carries. He finished the season with 977 yards, the most for an ISU freshman since Cameron Smith’s freshman record of 1,106 yards in 1993.
Nagel’s three receptions gave him a team-best 19 for the season. The last time the Redbirds’ leading receiver had fewer than 20 catches in a season was 1975.
2. Defense holds its own
While the offense sputtered again, the Redbirds got off to a superb start on defense, forcing the Sycamores into six punts and two missed field goals in their first eight possessions.
For the fifth time in the past six weeks, the Illinois State defense held an opponent below 21 points.
Waring’s third-quarter interception set the Sycamores up at the Illinois State 37-yard line. Six plays later, Wilderman scored his first TD on a 6-yard run.
“When you’re trying to win on defense, which we have to do right now, you have to be perfect,” Spack said. “It’s hard to be perfect. We can’t put our defense on a short field like that. It’s going to be trouble.”
Two drives later, the Sycamores moved 68 yards in 12 plays for the winning score. Third downs were a game changer for Indiana State, which converted seven of 17 attempts.
“We have to be able to come up with third-down stops,” Spack said. “They converted third downs that were critical in the game.”
Redshirt freshman safety Dillon Gearhart posted a career-high 10 tackles in the loss while senior defensive lineman Jacob Powell collected a career-best 2.5 tackles for loss.
3. Changes in the wind?
When asked after the game by WJBC if he planned to add more players via the transfer portal this off-season in an effort to improve the roster, Spack said he and his staff were already regular users of the NCAA transfer system.
“I don’t know if you can do it any more than we’ve done it,” he said. “We’re looking at guys every single day. We have a long list of guys.” If the Redbirds do add a transfer via the portal, “he better be a guy that can help us win now.”
Spack said he also expects some current Redbird players to depart the program.
“Our players will do that,” he said of the portal. “Don’t be surprised if you see guys go in the portal who think they’re not getting (playing time) or whatever and move on.”
News and notes
The Redbirds wore a patch near the left shoulder of the jerseys that said “PAM” in red letters. The patch honored Illinois State football staff member Pam Merna, who died Thursday after a two-plus year fight with cancer. Merna was part of the program for nearly 30 years and served as a parent away from home to many players and coaches, according to Spack. “She meant a lot to a lot of people here,” he said. “She was kind of our mom, all of us. We were her boys. Even the coaches (were) ‘my boys.’ We’ll miss her.” … Illinois State tight end Tanner Taula caught a career-high six passes for 58 yards. Saturday’s output matched his number of catches in the previous 10 games combined.
According to FBSchedules.com, the Redbirds are scheduled to open the 2022 season Sept. 3 with a home game against FCS Valparaiso University of the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League.