Zeke Vandenburgh (5) tops the Missouri Valley Football Conference in sacks and tackles-for-loss. (Photo by GoRedbirds.com)
By Dan Verdun
Illinois State head coach Brock Spack likes what he sees in this season’s Redbirds.
Six games into the schedule, ISU has already equaled its win total of a year ago.
The Redbirds stand at 4-2 overall as they prepare for Saturday’s Missouri Valley Football Conference game at Indiana State.
Three games into the league schedule, Illinois State’s offense has managed a 16.3 points-a-game average, while the defense has held league foes to 16.7 points per contest.
After falling 19-14 to rival Southern Illinois Oct. 1 in Normal, the Redbirds have rallied. ISU has won two straight conference games over Northern Iowa (23-21) and South Dakota (12-10) to post a 2-1 MVFC record.
“We found a way to lose those games a year ago,” Spack said. “The team has done a great job of finishing games.”
This week’s opponent
After winning its season opener against North Alabama in overtime, Indiana State has lost five games in the row including last week’s 48-42 defeat at Youngstown State.
The Sycamores, coached by Curt Mallory, are 0-3 in the Missouri Valley. Yet, all three losses have been by less than a touchdown — including a 31-26 home defeat to then-No. 1 North Dakota State two weeks ago.
“(We’re facing) a team (Indiana State) that is very similar to the one we just played (South Dakota),” Spack said. “(They’re) much better than their record indicates. They’ve had a tough schedule as well. They’ve played everybody tough.”
Traditionally, Indiana State has played Illinois State tough too. The Sycamores have won three of the last five meetings with the Redbirds, including last year’s 15-10 victory at Hancock Stadium.
“Indiana State has always been tough for us,” Spack said. “They’re hard on the Redbirds. They come to play.”
Running back Justin Dinka leads the Sycamores in rushing. The redshirt sophomore has run for 156 and 159 yards in the last two games respectively.
Quarterback Cade Chambers completed 15-of-29 passes for 311 yards and accounted for five touchdowns against Youngstown State.
(Kickoff: noon; TV: ESPN3; Radio: WJBC.com)
Key matchup to watch
Indiana State run game vs. Illinois State front seven: Dinka has averaged a whopping 15.75 yards per carry his last two games. The Flower Mound, Tex. product’s 315 combined yards in those games has accounted for nearly 57 percent on his season total (554). He ranks second among MVFC leaders with a 7.29 per attempt average.
Stopping Dinka would force Indiana State to the air, where Illinois State averages 3.3 sacks per game. The Redbirds rank second in pass defense in the conference and have intercepted six throws.
What’s at stake?
An Illinois State victory would push Spack’s squad to five wins — three in the league — heading into next weekend’s trip to the hostile FargoDome where the Redbirds take on No. 3-ranked North Dakota State.
Like many teams this time of year, the Redbirds have been hit by injuries and ailments. ISU faced South Dakota without starting offensive linemen Pete Bussone and Jake Pope. Left tackle Hunter Zambrano left the game before halftime under concussion protocol . . . Redshirt senior Zeke Vandenburgh leads the Missouri Valley in sacks (1.25 per game), tackles-for-loss (2 per game) and is second in tackles (9.5 average).