Redbird rewind: Illinois State’s fast start fizzles as No. 1 Jackrabbits race to victory

Illinois State linebacker Zeke Vandenburgh had three sacks and an interception Saturday in a 31-7 loss to South Dakota State. (Photo by

By Barry Bottino

Special teams and defense allowed the Illinois State football team to take a lead against No. 1 South Dakota State in Brookings, S.D., Saturday.

The Redbirds’ offense, however, couldn’t manage much of a contribution in a 31-7 Missouri Valley Football Conference loss to the Jackrabbits.

With redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Rittenhouse filling in for the second game in a row in place of injured starter Zack Annexstad, the Redbirds managed only 100 total yards of offense.

“We’re very handcuffed on offense right now,” ISU head coach Brock Spack told WJBC radio. “A lot of production is not playing right now.”

The Redbirds also were without senior tight end Tanner Taula and have reshuffled their offensive line because of injuries.

Illinois State (5-5 overall, 3-4 MVFC) lost its third game in a row and dropped out of FCS playoff consideration.

SDSU (10-1, 8-0) ended the season on a 10-game winning streak and earned the outright MVFC title.

ISU surprised the Jackrabbits on their Senior Day with a first-quarter blocked punt by sophomore safety Dillon Gearhart, which was recovered in the end zone by senior safety Sy Dabney for a 7-0 lead. Senior linebacker Zeke Vandenburgh also had a sack and intercepted a pass from SDSU quarterback Mark Gronowski in the first quarter.

After Illinois State limited SDSU to 18 total yards on its first three drives, the Jackrabbits scored on three possessions in a row for a 13-7 halftime lead.

Gronowski finished 20-for-28 passing for 283 yards, more than 100 yards above the average that ISU was allowing this season. He passed for 149 yards – including a 51-yard deep ball to Jadon Janke – in the second quarter alone.

“I was very impressed with him,” Spack said. “That opened things up for the running game. Our safeties had to be cautious because of the deep balls.”

SDSU rushed for 148 yards with five different ball carriers.

Illinois State ran 30 fewer plays on offense than the Jackrabbits’ 72, which limited the ISU defense’s fast start.

“It just kind of wore us down,” Spack said. “We were on the field a lot. We didn’t finish some tackles real well.”

Game changers

2:05, 1st quarter: Gearhart blocked the SDSU punt that was recovered in the end zone by Dabney, giving ISU a 7-0 lead.

3:11, 2nd quarter: SDSU quarterback Mark Gronowski rushed for a 6-yard TD for a 10-7 advantage.

9:06, 3rd quarter: SDSU wide receiver Jadon Janke caught a 43-yard pass from Gronowski to set up a TD three plays later and a 21-7 Jackrabbits lead. Janke caught five passes for 129 yards.

What it means

Illinois State’s playoff chances have fizzled out with a third straight MVFC loss. The Redbirds now sit seventh in the 11-team MVFC standings.

Best ‘Birds

Prairie State Pigskin chooses the top three Redbird players in the game:

Vandenburgh: The senior packed the stat sheet with 10 tackles, three sacks, four tackles for loss and an interception.

Gearhart: Along with the blocked punt, the safety had nine tackles and a sack.

Daniel Sobkowicz, WR: The Redbirds’ leading receiver caught four passes for 32 yards.

What’s next?

The Redbirds host Western Illinois Nov. 19 for Senior Day. Kickoff is scheduled for 11 a.m.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: