Illinois State puts winning streak on the line at North Dakota State

Offensive lineman Kobe Rios (76) and tight end Bryson Deming (86) clear a path for running back Nigel White (1) earlier this season for Illinois State. (Photo by

By Dan Verdun

Illinois State has strung together three consecutive Missouri Valley Football Conference wins. Now, the Redbirds encounter their biggest challenge to date.

ISU (5-2 overall, 3-1 MVFC) heads to Fargo to face No. 4-ranked North Dakota State (5-2, 3-1) in a Saturday afternoon conference tilt.

NDSU leads the all-time series 13-2. The two Redbird victories came in 2009 and ’10, head coach Brock Spack’s first two seasons at Illinois State.

The Bison, winners of nine FCS national championships in 11 years, boast a definite home field advantage.

The Fargodome, where NDSU has played home games since 1993, can seat 19,000 fans. Known as one of the loudest environments in FCS, the Fargodome crowd routinely goes over 100 decibels, according to its athletic website.

“I’m excited for it. North Dakota State has a great history of success,” Illinois State quarterback Zack Annexstad told Prairie State Pigskin

Annexstad, who made seven career starts for the University of Minnesota before transferring to ISU last winter, has faced the challenges presented by hostile Big Ten Conference crowds.

“It’s going to be important for us to communicate on the field,” Annexstad said. “We can’t get too caught up in things. We should enjoy the moment and don’t let it overwhelm us. That’s why going to Wisconsin (for ISU’s season opener) was helpful.”

This week’s opponent

North Dakota State had two weeks to prepare for Illinois State’s visit thanks to its bye week.

The Bison surrendered 16 unanswered points and were held to five first downs in the second half by South Dakota State Oct. 15 in a 23-21 home loss.

The defeat knocked NDSU from the top spot of the FCS rankings while moving the visiting Jackrabbits to No. 1.

Fullback Hunter Luepke, chosen as the Most Outstanding Player in last year’s FCS national championship game, leads the Bison offense.

The 6-foot-1, 236-pounder averages 6.1 yards per carry and has eight rushing touchdowns.

Luepke, listed among NFL draft guru Mel Kiper Jr.’s top 10 fullback/H-back projections, is NDSU’s second-leading receiver with 12 catches for 165 yards and three TDs.

(Kickoff: 2:30 p.m.; TV: ESPN-Plus; Radio:

Key matchup to watch

ISU run defense vs. NDSU rushing game: Despite missing two starting linebackers, the Redbirds held Indiana State to 134 net rushing yards.

Meanwhile, NDSU averages 246 yards per game on the ground this season. Yet, South Dakota State limited the Bison to a season-low 127 yards rushing, the fewest by North Dakota State since April 2021 when SDSU held NDSU to 97 yards.

What’s at stake?

An ISU victory would likely vault the Redbirds into the national rankings while boosting the likelihood of a playoff berth.

Quick hits

Both schools are constructing indoor practice facilities. According to an Oct. 14 North Dakota State release, the Bison complex will cost an estimated $54 million. The privately-funded project will include two full 120-yard fields – one indoors and one outdoors – both with artificial turf, LED lighting, camera platforms, scoreboards, clocks, sound systems and a storage warehouse . . . Illinois State’s facility, which is being constructed north of Horton Field House, features a 100-yard artificial turf field with a single end zone as well as run-off areas. It carries an $11.5 million price tag, according to Illinois State officials. Entrepreneur Dee Miller, his wife and ISU graduate Sheila Marshall-Miller along with former Illinois State football player B.J. Bello pledged $3 million toward the facility.


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