Redbird rewind: Late defensive heroics rescue ISU against stubborn Valparaiso

Bryson Deming caught a 23-yard touchdown pass late in the third quarter to give Illinois State the lead for good. (Photo by

By Barry Bottino

Illinois State head football coach Brock Spack encouraged his team to enjoy Saturday night’s 28-21 victory against Valparaiso.

“It’s hard to win Division I games,” Spack told WJBC radio. “You should be happy about winning the game. There’s a lot of things we need to work on, but we will worry about that (later).”

Valparaiso, a 33.5-point underdog from the non-scholarship FCS Pioneer Football League, made winning no easy task for the Redbirds (1-1) in their home opener at Hancock Stadium.

Illinois State needed two interceptions in the final 90 seconds – by sophomore cornerback Jeff Bowens and junior cornerback Franky West – to put away a stubborn group of Beacons (1-1).

The Redbirds leaned on their defense and running game to put the game away. New lead running back Wenkers Wright rushed for 101 yards, while his teammates on defense recorded five sacks in the second half, including three in the final 4:05.

“We definitely have to clean some things up,” said sophomore safety Dillon Gearhart, who had an interception for the Redbirds. “They played very aggressive, but we were lucky enough to finish.”

Game changers

12:26, 2nd quarter: Speedy sophomore wide receiver Jalen Carr returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown, tying the score one play after Valpo took a 14-7 lead by converting a muffed punt into a TD.  

8:45, 2nd quarter: ISU quarterback Zack Annexstad rushed for an 8-yard score, giving the Redbirds their first lead since 5 minutes into the first quarter.  

0:06, 4th quarter: West tiptoed along the sideline to make a crucial interception and put Valpo away with the Beacons driving for a potential tying score.  

What it means

Now in his 14th season, Spack improved to 13-1 in home openers. The Redbirds also won their first game of the season heading into a trophy game next week.

Best ‘Birds

Prairie State Pigskin chooses the top three Redbird players in the game:

Gearhart: The sophomore free safety piled up six tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks and an interception.  

Wright: Starting his first career game as the replacement for 2021 leading rusher Cole Mueller, who is likely out for the season with a leg injury, Wright piled up 85 of his yards in the second half.  

Zeke Vandenburgh, LB: The senior was disruptive, with 12 tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble in the victory.

What’s next?

ISU hosts the 110th version of the Mid-America Classic rivalry game at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 17 in Normal against Eastern Illinois (0-2).

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