Redbirds, South Dakota defy preseason expectations thus far in Missouri Valley

Despite battling injuries this season, Illinois State running back Wenkers Wright leads the team with 180 rushing yards. (Photo by

By Barry Bottino

Early results in the Missouri Football Conference have exhibited a flip in preseason expectations.

When Illinois State (3-2 overall, 1-1 MVFC) hosts South Dakota at 2 p.m. Saturday in Normal, the matchup will feature two teams headed in opposite directions thus far.

The Redbirds were voted to finish eighth in the 11-team league in a preseason poll of MVFC coaches, media members and university athletic communications staff. Yet they have won three of the past four games, including a 23-21 victory last weekend at Northern Iowa, a place where the Redbirds hadn’t won in a decade.

South Dakota, on the other hand, is winless in two league games, albeit against the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams — North Dakota State and South Dakota State.

The Coyotes, who were predicted to finish sixth, have faced a brutal schedule, with losses to No. 3 Montana and FBS Kansas State through five games.

Their only win was a 38-21 victory against FCS member Cal Poly.

This week’s opponent

South Dakota (1-4, 0-2) is trying to avoid its first 0-3 start in conference play since 2014. Sophomore running back Travis Theis is leading the team in rushing yards (370), rushing touchdowns (three) and receptions (12). His 74 rushing yards a game ranks sixth-best in the MVFC. Redshirt freshman running back Shomari Lawrence averages 49.4 yards a game and 5.1 yards a carry. Wide receiver Wesley Eliodor is 11th nationally with 28.1 yards per kickoff return. He also has a team-best two receiving TDs. On defense, cornerback Myles Harden leads the nation with six forced turnovers, including three interceptions and three forced fumbles. Linebackers Stephen Hillis (50) and Brock Morgensen (44) are the top two tacklers.

(Kickoff: 2 p.m.; TV: ESPN3; Radio:

Key matchup to watch

USD quarterback Carson Camp vs. ISU pass defense: With a mere four passing yards against the Redbirds, Camp will become only the eighth Coyotes QB to pass for 4,000 career yards. A graduate of Normal West, Camp won his collegiate debut as a starter at Illinois State in February 2021.  The Redbirds rank 17th nationally in fewest passing yards allowed (182.6 yards a game). Camp is completing a career-low 56% of his passes this season and has thrown four TD passes and five interceptions.

What’s at stake?

If the Redbirds want to earn FCS playoff consideration, getting to seven wins would be a big help. A victory against South Dakota would give them four wins with five additional games on the schedule.

Quick hits

With one sack this weekend, the Redbirds will hit 20 for the season, matching their team total for the entire 2021 season. Senior linebacker Zeke Vandenburgh ranks fourth nationally with seven sacks. As a team, ISU’s 19 sacks is the sixth-best in FCS. … Illinois State’s defense ranks third in the conference with six interceptions. … The ISU passing game is the epitome of spreading the wealth. Six different players have at least 10 receptions, led by tight end Tanner Taula’s 16 catches. Five Redbirds have at least one TD catch, led by two each from tight end Bryson Deming and wide receiver Daniel Sobkowicz.

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