Game Preview: Illinois State University
The Jacks are coming off of the emotional high of defeating NDSU. Next week the Rabbits take on in-state rival USD. Illinois State (6-3) needs one more win to really have a chance of making the FCS playoffs. Their final two games are at SDSU and then they host NDSU to wrap up the regular season. Illinois State has been incredibly unpredictable this season. One week they look look terrible (losing to SIU 7-42) and then the next week like a top-10 FCS squad (defeating USD 37-21). Last week they blew a 14-0 halftime lead against WIU and ended up surrendering 31 unanswered second half points.
The Jackrabbits will again need their best effort of the season to win this game as it is a near "must win" for Illinois State. The Redbirds beat the Jackrabbits in 2016, 38-21 by creating a lot of pressure on quarterback Taryn Christion and forced him into uncharacteristic mistakes.
The Redbirds are a balanced offense and come into the game averaging 187.4 ypg on the ground and 225 through the air. The offense puts up 28.44 points per game. They are a fairly experienced group, especially at the wide receiver and quarterback position. Areas of weakness for the Redbirds are their 3rd down conversion percentage of just 34% and their red-zone TD percentage of just 45%.
At quarterback, Illinois State returns #16 Jake Kolbe who is now a senior. On the season he has passed for 2025 yards and 12 touchdowns to 10 interceptions. Kolbe isn't much of a threat to run the ball as he only has 23 yards on the season. Kolbe has a 57% completion percentage and can really connect on the long ball. Kolbe has only been sacked 20 times on the season but 5 of those were against Western Illinois last week. Last year against the Jackrabbits, Kolbe only passed for 138 yards but had 2 touchdowns.
The running back for Illinois State is #25 James Robinson. On the season Robinson has 754 yards and 9 touchdowns including a 193 yard performance against the University of South Dakota. Robinson isn't a huge threat to catch the ball with only 6 receptions coming into this week. Robinson's back-up is fellow sophomore #21 Markel Smith. Smith has a 5.39 ypc average this season and 4 touchdowns. Smith went for 124 yards against the Youngstown State defense two weeks ago. The Redbirds use a fullback, #44 Jake Hendershot, but he 0 carries and only 3 receptions on the season, all of which have come the last three weeks.
On the outside the Redbirds feature a talented trio of #11 Spencer Schnell, #12 Christian Gibbs, and #19 Anthony Fowler. Schnell, who was named a preseason All-MVFC pick, has 50 receptions, 676 yards and 4 touchdowns. Gibbs has 27 receptions for 502 yards and 5 touchdowns. Fowler has 17 receptions for 212 yards and 1 TD but has been shutout the past two weeks. #83 Matt Biegalski started in place of the injured Fowler last week and has 5 receptions and 28 yards on the season. Redshirt freshman #88 Antonio Hadden Jr. did have 5 receptions for 97 yards against SIU earlier this season. At tight end the Redbirds feature #85 Tyler Petkovich who is a threat in the passing game. The 6-6, 245 junior has caught 21 passes for 219 yards and touchdown so far.
The offensive line has been a unit in flux this season but has started the same five the past four weeks. As I shared earlier, they have only given up 20 sacks on the season but 5 came last week against WIU. I'm curious to know what WIU did to disrupt what had been a pretty solid group. From left to right the Redbirds start redshirt freshman #71 Drew Himmelman (6-10, 300), sophomore #73 Erik Mikkelson (6-3, 305), senior #58 Dean Helt (6-5, 300), junior #61 Chad Kanugh (6-6, 310), and junior #53 Donavin O'Day (6-6, 305). This is a big group that seems to run and pass block equally well. The Jackrabbit defensive front will need another performance like they had against NDSU.
The Redbirds deploy an attacking defense that plays fast and likes to put pressure on the opposing quarterback. On the season they have 27 sacks, and 7 players have 2 or more. They do allow 18.91 points per game but have some large point totals while also pitching out two shutouts. Again, they seem inconsistent. Last year, the Redbirds intercepted and sacked Taryn three times each including a 92 yard pick-six to seal the victory. All three of the 4th quarter interceptions came in the red-zone and are mistakes that Taryn simply does not make. However, they still allowed Taryn to throw for 430 yards and 2 touchdowns while also allowing the Jacks to run for over 100 yards.
The big defensive front looks to apply a lot of pressure on opposing QBs. #91 Adam Conley (6-5, 265) has 31 tackles and 4 sacks on the season. #98 Dalton Keene (6-4, 275) has 6 sacks and 37 tackles from his defensive tackle position. #99 Matt McCown (6-3, 285) has 18 tackles from his interior position. #95 Jason Harris (6-5, 240) has 2.5 sacks and 34 tackles. #45 James Graham (5-11, 210) appears to be a situational player but has 4.5 sacks.
The linebackers for Illinois State are all new starters in 2017. The unit is lead by former Juco All-American #4 Tyree Horton at the will position. Horton has 62 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles. He is joined by #31 Bryce Holm in the middle. Holm has played in 48 games for the Redbirds and has 44 tackles this season. The other outside linebacker is #40 Decxavier Kelly-Martin who has 38 tackles. The two reserves #50 Ty DeForest (2 sacks, 30 tackles) and #5 Brannon Barry (3 sacks, 40 tackles) play plenty of snaps and can obviously get home to the quarterback.
The secondary is probably the strength of the defensive unit. #2 Alec Kocour was a 2nd team All-MVFC pick in 2016 and has made 37 tackles and has 1 INT on the season. At the other safety position is #9 Mitchell Brees who is in his second year starting and has 37 tackles and 2 INTs. The cornerbacks are paced by senior #10 Davontae Harris, who has had an outstanding career for the Redbirds and was a 2016 All MVFC selection. He has 51 stops, 2 INTs, and has 2 sacks; both in the last two weeks. Watch him creeping around the line of scrimmage. The other starting corner is #20 Willie Edwards who recorded his first career interception against the Jacks last season. This year he has 32 tackles including 8 against SIU. On the season he has zero interceptions and only 3 pass break-ups. #14 DraShane Glass is a former starter who has 22 tackles on the season and has intercepted a pass the past two games.
The Redbird special teams unit is again solid but not spectacular. #38 Zach Breen has a 40 yard average on his punts with just 4 touchbacks and 15 downed inside the red-zone. The kicking responsibilities belong to #97 Sean Slattery. The senior is 13/16 on field goal attempts and is 30/30 on extra points. He has a long of 51 yards this season and has 5 made kicks greater than 40 yards. Cade Johnson may have a chance at some returns in this game as Slattery only averages 58 yards on kickoffs and has just 15 touchbacks on 53 attempts this season.
The kick return duties belong to #8 Jordan Birch (6 returns for 23.3 yards per return) and # 24 Christian Uphoff (2 returns, 22.0 yards per return). The punt returner is #11 Spencer Schnell who has 18 returns this season for a 5.78 avg and a long of 36.
The Redbirds are in a must win situation. They have been highly unpredictable this season but have a big win on the season over USD. The Redbirds always play the Jacks tough but I think the Redbirds were lucky to defeat the Jackrabbits in 2016 and I would expect the Jacks to come out looking for revenge. The weather forecast is improving and there is now just a 10% chance of precipitation on Saturday afternoon. If the Jacks get off to a fast start I think this one will be over early. I predict a 34-20 Jackrabbit victory.