Illinois FCS programs forge ahead as darkness envelops November football

The FCS playoffs begin Nov. 26. It may be the first since 2018 without any Illinois teams.

By Dan Verdun

“August is for arguing. September is for dreaming. October is for bargaining. November is for everything.

“November is here.”

— Bill Connelly, ESPN writer & author of two books on college football

For many, November is also about surviving. Getting to the finish line.

It’s about colder weather, hardy tailgaters, empty stadium seats and darkness closing in earlier than expected.

It’s about the daily grind with the hope of singing the school song amidst the chill of Saturday’s final score.

It’s about those with thoughts of the transfer portal jostling their heads. It’s about landing the recruits you’re targeting.

Yes, November is for everything. And everything encompasses a lot.

Achy breaky parts

Illinois State and Southern Illinois have flickering playoff hopes. Eastern and Western have other goals as they rebuild under first-year coaches. 

All four have been beset with injuries. Much of each school’s weekly media conferences are spent addressing who’s healthy and who isn’t. 

A complete listing of those affected is far too long  to list. Yet, here are a few “headliners”.

ISU lost last year’s leading rusher, Cole Mueller, for the season in its opener at Wisconsin. His replacement, Wenkers Wright, has been hobbled. Offensive linemen Peter Bussone and Hunter Zambrano have missed time. Starting QB Zack Annextad didn’t play in Saturday’s 19-17 loss to Youngstown State.

“If we would have had a full arsenal . . . we would have done some things differently,” Redbird head coach Brock Spack told WJBC Radio afterward. “We just didn’t have that ability.”

Southern Illinois defensive back David Miller (3) and Illinois State running back Pha’Leak Brown (22) meet in one of numerous collisions played out each weekend in college football. (Photo by

SIU has endured injuries to the likes of running back Justin Strong, receiver Avante Cox along with offensive linemen Sam Buck and Jacob Caughell. Promising receiver Izaiah Hartrup has essentially been out for the season.

“Everybody feels banged up this time of year,” SIU linebacker Branson Combs said. “It’s the exhaustion of going through the season, but there are guys doing this at the pro level at 40 years old. We’re still young compared to them, so that’s the way I look at it. If you take care of your body, you can have yourself feeling alright so that you can play.

“It also depends on the game. Some games you’re going to take more hits than others. The games that you do take those hits, you feel like you have scratches and bruises down your arms. That’s what treatment is for, getting you back right.”

Freshmen ‘playing like sophomores’

WIU, which had just 58 healthy players for last spring’s scrimmage, suffered losses on both sides of the ball. Most recently, linebacker Anthony Quinney missed time, yet the junior remained committed.

“He’s a really good teammate,” said Quinney’s replacement, freshman Ryan Crandall. “He’s on the sideline coaching me up after every drive, telling me what to do and telling me good things too.”

(Photo by WIU Athletics)

Western head coach Myers Hendrickson said, “Our freshmen are already playing like sophomores because they were forced into it right away.”

EIU has constantly had to reshuffle the offensive line and secondary. Isaiah Hill, last year’s top receiver and a preseason all-conference selection, played in just two games. The Panthers, in essence, had only one healthy running back for their Homecoming game. Kicker Stone Galloway missed Saturday with the flu.

“We certainly have a number of guys that have started or would be starting for us right now that are not playing, but everybody has to deal with that,” EIU head coach Chris Wilkerson said after a 20-17 loss to Tennessee Tech in late October. “For us, this is going to be about how we choose to respond or react to this situation.

“It’s certainly not where we want to be, and it is painful for the players and coaches, and I’m sure anybody who supports Panther football.”

Excuses not welcome

Asked how he wants his team to respond, Wilkerson said, “I want them to continue to do what they’ve done, and what they’ve shown — some fight, some resiliency, pride, and I don’t expect anything less.”

Colin Bohanek (Photo by

EIU linebacker and captain Colin Bohanek dismissed any talk of injuries being an excuse.

“The guys that have stepped up have been doing it all year,” he said. “(I’ve) got to regroup with the other captains and see what the best way forward is. There are a lot of different ways that you can lead and (we need) to find the right way to try and get our guys up (for the final weeks). 

“It’s tough, but we have to find the right way to motivate our guys to finish the season strong. There’s no quit in us. We just have to keep stepping forward.”

Outsiders have noticed.

“I have a lot of respect for the EIU program and how hard they’re playing and what they’re doing,” Tennessee Tech head coach Dewayne Alexander said. “Of all the teams we’ve played so far, nobody plays harder on film than they do.”

November is indeed for everything. November is here.

+Barry Bottino contributed to this post.

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