Spack likes what he sees in renewed defense as Redbirds enter bye week

Team captain Zeke Vandenburgh hoists the traveling trophy following Illinois State’s decisive victory over rival Eastern Illinois Saturday night at Hancock Stadium. (Photo by

By Dan Verdun

Brock Spack has always prided himself on defense. He did as a linebacker at Purdue and then again as defensive coordinator at Wyoming and his alma mater. That pride returned full force Saturday night as Illinois State dominated rival Eastern Illinois 35-7 to conclude the Redbirds’ non-conference schedule.

“What we saw tonight is what we saw in training camp,” Spack said. “The defense was active and athletic.”

Such was not the case in ISU’s first two games: a 38-0 shutout loss at Big Ten member Wisconsin and then a nail-biting 28-21 home win over Valparaiso of the non-scholarship FCS Pioneer League.

But all seemed right Saturday night as the Redbirds bottled up the EIU offense, stuffing the Panther running game and pressuring starting quarterback Jonah O’Brien into three interceptions — two of which were returned for touchdowns.

“The receiver ran a quick slant. (ISU linebacker) Jeremiah (Jordan) sat underneath and the quarterback threw it straight to him. He tipped it to me, and I just saw green grass and ran it home,” said corner Jeff Bowens, who had the first Pick 6.

Bowens also played a key role in ISU’s second defensive touchdown. The 5-foot-9 sophomore from Southfield, Mich. downed a Jack Takerian punt at the Eastern 1-yard line.

Moments later, ISU veteran Zeke Vandenburgh deflected an O’Brien pass and teammate Deandre Lamont snatched it out of the air and bulled his way into the end zone for a three-yard interception return for a touchdown.

“It was a quick out. I was there and Zeke tipped it up,” Lamont said. “It was in there for a while, and I just went and got the ball and took it in.”

EIU miscues fueled ISU dominance

“We had a good idea of what they (EIU) wanted to do,” said Vandenburgh, who had a game-high eight tackles. “They gave us some different looks. I thought we adjusted really well early in the game. It was more like their mistakes and us taking advantage of it.”

There were plenty of Panther mistakes. Playing without its starting center, EIU endured a high number of bad snaps. And even when the snap was on the money, O’Brien fumbled the ball away at his own 8-yard line in the third quarter. Illinois State cashed that turnover in for the final score of the evening.

Things were so bad for the Panthers that by the end of the third quarter, ISU had held Eastern to a net of minus 17 yards rushing — mainly the result of errant snaps as well as Redbird sacks.

By the game’s conclusion, EIU had only mustered 167 total yards, with only 40 coming from net rushing; 30 of which Panther reserve quarterback Dom Shoffner gained on late-game runs.

Jack of a new trade

Vandenburgh proved to be the dominant player that Spack envisioned when the former Freeport High School standout first came to Illinois State. The 6-foot-3, 235-pound redshirt senior recorded three TFLs, two quarterback hurries, a sack, a pass breakup and a fumble recovery against EIU.

Vandenburgh, an ISU team captain, has earned Missouri Valley Football Conference Defensive Player of the Week honors two straight times. He had 12 tackles and three sacks against Valparaiso.

“We moved him from field to boundary (in our defensive alignment),” Spack said. “He’s a Jack (outside hybrid rush end/linebacker) now. That move has been really good for him.”

A move that Vandenburgh didn’t make has also been really good for ISU. In 2020, he put his name in the transfer portal but eventually made the decision to return to Normal.

Just three games into this season, Vandenburgh has already surpassed his sack total of a year ago.

For now, Illinois State has its bye week to heal and prepare for its conference opener Oct. 1 when the Redbirds host Southern Illinois (1-2). The Salukis upset Northwestern 31-24 Saturday and begin their MVFC schedule Saturday against North Dakota.

“Tonight (Saturday against EIU) is a good barometer of where we’re at right now,” Spack said.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: