Eastern Illinois head coach Chris Wilkerson has seen the Panther-Illinois State rivalry from many angles. (Photo by EIUPanthers.com)
By Dan Verdun
Chris Wilkerson has previously seen the Eastern Illinois rivalry with Illinois State as a player and as an assistant coach. Saturday, the 50-year-old will see it as the head coach of his alma mater for the first time.
On the other side is Brock Spack, now in his 14th year as ISU head coach. Earlier in his career, Spack spent four seasons (1987-90) as an assistant to Bob Spoo at EIU. Moreover, Spack recruited Wilkerson to play at Eastern.
“Brock Spack is a guy that I met 33 years ago in the summer before my senior year (of high school) at a camp, and that’s how I became familiar with Eastern Illinois University,” Wilkerson said during Tuesday’s Ohio Valley Conference media Zoom call.
Spack served as Wilkerson’s position group coach when the recruit redshirted the 1990 season at EIU prior to Spack leaving for an assistant coaching stop at Purdue.
Spack later became Joe Tiller’s defensive coordinator, first at Wyoming and then back at Purdue. Spack became ISU head coach in 2009.
“He’s established a phenomenal football program at Illinois State certainly, playing in the national championship game in 2015 and the successes they’ve had with the number of playoff appearances they’ve had,” Wilkerson said of Spack.
Wilkerson was 2-1-1 in the EIU-ISU series as a player (1991-94) while posting a 2-3 record against Illinois State as an assistant to Spoo (1995-2001).
For Wilkerson, one of his “greatest moments as a player” occurred during the 1994 game between the rivals.
The Panthers’ record stood at 2-5 and rumors were swirling that Spoo was going to be fired unless EIU won its final four games — the first of which was on the road at Illinois State.
“The night before that game, it was storming,” Wilkerson recalled. “It was a terrible thunderstorm in the Bloomington-Normal area. We were staying at the old Holidome there. I’ll never forget, Coach Spoo was the first guy in the meeting room, as he usually was. If you were running on Spoo time, if you were five minutes early, you were five minutes late.
“The mood was a little bit down. Everybody knew what was on the line, and we hadn’t played very well on the road. Coach said to everybody, ‘Men, the sun will rise tomorrow.’ And it did.
“We went out and played our tails off; it was a barn-burner of a game. We blocked a punt. Coach Spoo had drawn (it up) earlier in the week. Ray McElroy blocked it. The offense made just enough plays. The defense made just enough plays. But we won (16-13) in Normal and then we won the last three (games), and that’s when Bob got the extra contract and I got into coaching right away. We were 10-1 the next year and the rest of it is certainly history.”
This week’s opponent
Illinois State (1-1) hosts Eastern Illinois (0-2) in the 110th edition of the Mid-America Classic.
The Redbirds were shut out at at Big Ten member Wisconsin to open the year before a home win over Valparaiso last weekend.
(Kickoff: 6:30 p.m.; TV: ESPN-Plus & Marquee Network; Radio: link available through EIUPanthers.com)
One matchup to watch
EIU offense vs. ISU defense
Senior safety Zeke Vandenburgh leads an aggressive Redbird defense with 22 tackles and four sacks. Defensive backs Dillon Gearhart and Sy Dabney have three and two sacks respectively.
“It all works hand-in-hand. There are 11 moving pieces of every single play,” Wilkerson said. “When you look at ‘you limited the running game, but they were more efficient in the passing game,’ well no, the pass rush and the under-coverage play into every pass.
“On offense you look at the sacks statistic, and you say, ‘hey, you guys gave up six sacks’ . . . your offensive line (didn’t perform), well that’s not necessarily the case. The running back missed an assignment. The quarterback didn’t get the ball out of his hand on a couple occasions. The wide receiver didn’t look for the football. The offensive linemen may have used a poor technique but . . .
“There’s a lot of moving pieces that go into anything. We always say it’s never as good as it seems, it’s never as bad as it seems, the reality is somewhere in the middle.”
What’s at stake?
The Redbirds have won the last four games between the rivals.
Illinois State leads the all-time series 58-42-9 and has won seven of the last 10 games in the series following a 31-24 Redbirds’ win in 2021.
Now as head coach of his alma mater, Wilkerson even has to face opposition from his daughter, an Illinois State softball player as outlined in this story from the spring by Prairie State Pigskin’s Barry Bottino:
The rivalry is the eighth longest played non-Ivy League FCS series between
schools (16th overall among FCS schools counting the Ivy League) . . . The schools first met in 1901 with EIU winning 28-0 . . .The programs began playing for a traveling trophy with the 100th meeting of the series on Sept. 1, 2011 (a 33-26 EIU win with Spoo besting Spack) . . . The two schools have missed playing just three times since World War II — in 1996 due to conference realignment, in 2001 due to 9/11 and in 2020 due to COVID . . . EIU assistant coaches Adam Gristick and DJ Bland also both appeared in four Mid-America Classic games each as players.