CARBONDALE — Linebackers Tyree Horton, Bryce Holm and Decxavier Kelly-Martin hadn't ever started a game before Illinois State's season opener against Butler Sept. 2.
Five games later, the Redbirds (4-1, 2-0 Missouri Valley Football Conference) have the nation's top-ranked rushing defense and sit tied with No. 2 North Dakota State (5-0, 2-0) and No. 4 South Dakota (5-0, 2-0) atop the league standings. Horton, a 6-foot, 230-pound junior transfer from TCU, leads Illinois State with 35 tackles and six quarterback hurries. His 5.0 tackles for loss are third on the team, and have helped the Redbirds limit opponents to 47.8 yards a game on the ground.
Northern Arizona (3-2), which handed Illinois State its first defeat of the season Saturday in Flagstaff, Arizona, had 28 yards on the ground on 27 carries Saturday. The Lumberjacks threw for 403 yards and four touchdowns in their 37-16 win.
"Illinois State has a great defense, one of the best ones that we've seen," said SIU coach Nick Hill, whose team hosts the 15th-ranked Redbirds Saturday at 2 p.m. "Coach (Brock) Spack does a great job with those guys. A lot of guys are back from a really good defense last year. The linebackers are different, but up front and in the secondary they're pretty much the same. Northern Arizona had minus-1 total yards in the first quarter. Illinois State was dominating the football game until about halfway through the second quarter."
SIU (2-3, 0-2) averages 146.4 rushing yards a game, but is coming off its worst ground performance of the season. The Salukis' early deficit at No. 8/9 South Dakota State contributed mightily to the lack of carries, but SIU rushed for only 84 yards on a season-low 20 carries in Saturday's 49-14 loss. The Salukis rushed for 285 yards in the win over Mississippi Valley State and 99 on 38 carries in the victory at Southeast Missouri State.
Last year, without starting running back Daquan Isom, SIU rushed for 140 yards and a touchdown on 40 carries in a 31-28 loss at Illinois State. The Redbirds got 122 yards and a touchdown from running back James Robinson and finished with 141 yards on 33 carries.
Isom hasn't played against Illinois State in his career. The 5-foot-8, 186-pound junior missed last year's game with a hamstring injury and was suspended the last two games in 2015, but caught Redbird coach Brock Spack's eye when he watched some of SIU's film from this season.
Isom rushed for 130 yards on 16 carries in the loss to Northern Iowa and is averaging 5.1 yards a carry this year.
"Their tailback is a great one-cut, jump-cut guy. He's very quick, very, very sudden, catches the ball well. He is a dart," Spack said. "He is very, very difficult because of his footspeed, and he has toughness. He will be a handful. They also have (D.J. Davis). They have a lot of backs, but (Davis) is also a good kick returner."
Missouri State (1-4, 0-2) is the only team to rush for over 100 yards against Illinois State this season. The Bears passed for 157 yards and rushed for 154 yards and a touchdown in a 34-9 loss Sept. 23. The Redbirds held Butler to zero rushing yards on 21 carries, Eastern Illinois to 14 yards on 37 carries, and Indiana State to 43 yards on 32 attempts.
SIU leads the series against Illinois State 40-36-3 but has dropped three straight, including a 42-21 loss at Saluki Stadium in 2015. SIU's last win in the series came in Carbondale in 2013, 24-17.