Illinois State seeks to continue success against EIU, secure win before bye week

Senior wide receiver Brock Annexstad (8) ranks second on the team this season with four receptions. He is one 11 players to catch a pass for Illinois State. (Photo by

By Barry Bottino

Illinois State needed its defense to rescue a 28-21 victory in the Redbirds’ home opener against non-scholarship FCS program Valparaiso last weekend.

“We didn’t play as good as we could in certain spots, obviously,” ISU head coach Brock Spack said. “We survived it.”

When it comes to the Mid-America Classic rivalry against Eastern Illinois, the Redbirds (1-1) have thrived, rather than survived, for the past decade.

Entering Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. kickoff against the Panthers (0-2) in Normal, ISU has won four in a row in the series and seven of the last 10. This year will be the 110th version of the game, which dates back to 1901.

The two teams began playing for a traveling trophy in 2011.

“It’s a rivalry game, which Coach Spack always talks about,” ISU sophomore free safety Dillon Gearhart said. “We know it’s going to be a dogfight.”

A win this week would extend ISU’s streak in the series but also provide some good vibes going into the team’s bye week.

“I’d really like to see us play well in this game,” Spack said. “It would be nice to play really well. The bottom line is to win the game.”

This week’s opponent

Eastern Illinois is 0-2 this season under new head coach Chris Wilkerson, a former EIU defensive lineman and assistant coach for the Panthers under late head coach Bob Spoo. EIU has faced a difficult early schedule but opened some eyes by rallying in the second half in its season-opening loss to FBS Northern Illinois. Quarterback Jonah O’Brien has completed nearly 70% of his passes, while running backs Markenzy Pierre and Jaelin Benefield are both averaging more than 5 yards a carry.

(Kickoff: 6:30 p.m.; TV: Marquee Sports Network; Radio:

Key matchup to watch

ISU run game vs. Eastern Illinois DL: The Panthers allowed more than 180 rushing yards a game last season, then added several big bodies across the defensive front via transfer. Last season in Charleston, the Redbirds piled up 239 yards on the ground and averaged 5.3 yards a carry in a 31-24 triumph. ISU is likely to use multiple backs against Eastern, which has allowed 190 yards a game this fall in games against FBS Northern Illinois and Chattanooga, the 10th-ranked team nationally in FCS.

What’s at stake?

The Redbirds badly want to go into their bye week with a win before they begin the Missouri Valley Football Conference play Oct. 1 at home against Southern Illinois.

Quick hits

Now in his 14th season at ISU, Brock Spack has faced five different EIU head coaches in the Mid-America Classic rivalry – Spoo, Dino Babers, Kim Dameron, Adam Cushing and Wilkerson. … ISU senior linebacker Zeke Vandenburgh is averaging 11 tackles per game this season, which ranks second in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. He leads the league in tackles for loss (four) and sacks (four). … Through two games, 11 different players have caught a pass for the Redbirds. Senior tight ends Bryson Deming (five) and Tanner Taula (four), along with senior wide receiver Brock Annexstad (four), lead the team in receptions.

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