Illinois State seeks faster start to end a 10-year drought at Northern Iowa

Illinois State receiver Brock Annexstad (8), brother of quarterback Zack Annexstad, has eight catches for 125 yards through four games. (Photo by VidetteOnline.com)

By Dan Verdun

While Illinois State sped up its offense in the second half of last weekend’s game with rival Southern Illinois, the Redbirds realize the need to pick up the pace from the opening kickoff Saturday at Northern Iowa.

ISU fell behind 19-0 before staging a comeback that fell short in a 19-14 Missouri Valley Football Conference loss to the Salukis at Hancock Stadium in Normal.

“It was good to see how hard we battled to get back in the game,” ISU coach Brock Spack said afteward. “The first half we didn’t play well offensively or defensively.”

Two of his star players agreed.

“In the first half we just didn’t get much going,” quarterback Zack Annexstad said. “We’d have a couple of good plays and then we’d have a penalty or maybe a missed throw or drop.”

“In the first half we just had a few plays where we made mistakes and gave up explosive plays,” defender Zeke Vandenburgh said.

ISU looked like a different team in the second half on both sides of the ball. The Redbirds switched to a no-huddle, uptempo offense, while the defensive clamped down on SIU allowing just 75 yards of total offense and no points.

“We got them in a little more man coverage and we could take some (deep route) shots. And then they went with some split safety. We had some looks over the middle that were there,” Annexstad said. “I got into a groove, and the guys got a little more energy.”

As a result, Annexstad passed for 168 yards and two touchdowns in the second half. The University of Minnesota transfer finished with 243 yards on the day. In addition, he wound up as ISU’s leading rusher with 34 net yards.

“I saw some running lanes and took off,” Annexstad said.

On the other side of the ball, Vandenburgh shined with a career-best 14-tackle performance.

“I feel like if we just line up correctly and do our assignments, (things like) sprint to the ball (and) tackle well, (then) it’s hard to move the ball on us,” he said.

The MVFC named Vandenburgh its Defensive Player of the Week. The redshirt senior from Freeport has won the award three times this season and four times in his career.

Illinois State enters Saturday with a 2-2 overall record and is 0-1 in the Missouri Valley. Northern Iowa is 2-3 overall and 2-1 in the conference.

The Redbirds have not won at UNI since 2012.

“We’ve got to play better in the first half. We have to come out with more urgency,” Annexstad said.

This week’s opponent

After a sluggish start to the season, Northern Iowa has won two straight games — both in the Missouri Valley.

The Panthers slipped by Indiana State 20-14 last weekend.

Quarterback Theo Day has completed 65.5 percent of his pass with nine touchdowns and four interceptions. Deion McShane and Sam Schnee are his top targets at receiver.

(Kickoff: 4 p.m.; TV: ESPN-Plus; Radio: WJBC.com)

Key matchup to watch

ISU pass defense vs. UNI passing game: The Redbirds are second to only North Dakota State in pass defense this season. ISU has given up 175.3 passing yards per game and has six interceptions, including two returned for touchdowns.

UNI, meanwhile, ranks second in the league at 268.2 passing yards per game. Statistically, the Panthers are tops in passing efficiency in the MVFC.

What’s at stake?

Each team enters Saturday’s game with one conference defeat. Whichever team loses Saturday suffers a blow to its playoff chances.

Quick hits

Spack said that running back Wenkers Wright should be available to play Saturday after leaving the Sept. 17 Eastern Illinois game with an injury and sitting out against SIU last weekend . . . Spack and Northern Iowa head coach Mark Farley are 6-6 in games against each other . . . ISU defeated UNI 17-10 in overtime last season. Prior to that, the Panthers had won three in a row against the Redbirds.

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