NORMAL – It’s happened to the Illinois State football team three consecutive seasons.
And the Redbirds are determined that last Saturday’s loss to North Dakota State will not be the start of it happening again.
In 2016, ISU rebounded from four consecutive losses and a 2-4 record to qualify for the FCS playoffs. But the last two years, a slump has been costly.
ISU dropped the final three games of the 2017 season (all to nationally ranked teams). In 2018, the Redbirds were 5-1 before losing four straight (again all to ranked teams). In both campaigns, the resulting 6-5 records were insufficient for postseason play.
“It’s a reflection of leadership sometimes how they respond to that and how they snap out of it,” said ISU coach Brock Spack, whose 13th-ranked team faces unranked Southern Illinois on Saturday at 6 p.m. in Carbondale. “In 2016, we came back and got back in it. I thought that team had really good leadership. That could have gone south.
“The last two years, I don’t think our leadership has been as good. There were some good leaders within the group. There just wasn’t enough of them in the older guys.”
And his current squad?
“I think this group’s got good leadership,” Spack said. “I don’t think this team will have that issue. Our guys are a resilient bunch. I’ll be surprised if we don’t respond well.”
ISU jack linebacker Tuvone Clark agrees the Redbirds need to handle adversity better.
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“We have to do the opposite of what we did. I felt like we dwelled on losses,” said Clark. “We weren’t fixing the problem. We’re mature. We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to get back on track and fight every Saturday.”
The 3-2 Redbirds gave up 293 rushing yards to North Dakota State, just 46 fewer yards than ISU had surrendered on the ground over its first four games combined.
“I thought they handled us pretty well up front. That was a little disappointing,” Spack said. “We don’t give up rushing yardage like that very often.”
Fullbacks on mend: Fullback Tyler Pennington (concussion) returned to practice Tuesday. Starting fullback Tim McCloyn is close to a return from knee injury.
“Pennington is back. Unless something out of the ordinary happens, I think we’ll have him,” said Spack. “McCloyn will be an end of the week decision, a 50-50 type deal.”
Southern Illinois: The Salukis are 2-3 and also dropped their Missouri Valley Football Conference opener, 28-10, at third-ranked South Dakota State.
Southern has another loss to a ranked team (44-26 to Southeast Missouri State) and has faced two FBS opponents, defeating Massachusetts, 45-20, and losing to Arkansas State, 41-28.
The home team has dominated in the last two series matchups. SIU rocked the Redbirds, 42-7, in 2017 at Saluki Stadium. ISU returned the favor last season, 51-3, at Hancock Stadium.
“They have to know the last time we went there it wasn’t a very good trip,” Spack said of his team. “We got ran out of the stadium. We got our butts kicked pretty good.”