Battered ‘Birds chase winning record in season finale against Western Illinois

Senior defensive tackle Noah Hickcox and the Redbirds host Western Illinois in ISU’s season finale Saturday. (Photo by

By Barry Bottino

Ten offensive plays into the 2022 football season, Illinois State started a trend.

Ten games after opening the season with a 38-0 loss at Wisconsin, that trend still stings for ISU head coach Brock Spack.

“Injuries to our offense,” he said when asked about the biggest takeaway this season. “It started on the third carry with Cole Mueller, and it hasn’t ended.”

Since Mueller, the team’s leading rusher in 2021, sustained a broken left leg in September on his third rushing attempt of the season, Spack said the team has been without eight offensive starters at various points this fall.

Despite all the bumps and bruises, the Redbirds (5-5 overall, 3-4 Missouri Valley Football Conference) can end their season on a high note Saturday at home with a victory against conference rival Western Illinois (0-10, 0-7) and lock up a winning record for the 11th time in Spack’s 14 seasons in Normal.

“It’s always the first goal, to have a winning season,” Spack said.

The Redbirds will honor 14 players before the 11 a.m. kickoff on Senior Day.

“I’ve tried to avoid that a bit,” sixth-year defensive end Jason Lewan said of thinking about Saturday’s pregame events. “It’s tough when you start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I haven’t thought about it yet, but when I do, I’m sure that there’s going to be tons of gratitude toward the fans and the university.

“They allowed me to stick around for so long,” he said with a laugh.

Senior linebacker Zeke Vandenburgh, who is on the watch list for the FCS Buck Buchanan Award as the national defensive player of the year, said he is “thankful for the opportunity to play with the guys in this locker room.

“I’m going to try to have the game of my life the last time around.”

This week’s opponent

Western is winless this season and owns the longest current losing streak in FCS at 12 games. The Leathernecks’ last victory was Oct. 30, 2021, against Illinois State. That day, WIU quarterback Connor Sampson threw for 298 yards and three TDs in a 38-31 victory. Western is one of only two winless teams remaining in FCS this season. The other is Robert Morris (0-10). … Western will be without its biggest offensive weapon — wide receiver Naseim Brantley — for Saturday’s game. In last week’s loss to Indiana State, Brantley sustained a serious left leg injury in the third quarter while making a 33-yard reception. He broke the leg just above the ankle, which required surgery, a WIU spokesperson said. Brantley ranks 12th nationally in receiving TDs (nine) and 16th in receiving yards per game (89.3). … Western has struggled mightily to run the football this season. WIU ranks among the five least productive rushing offenses in the nation (75 yards a game) and has one rushing touchdown this season, by quarterback Clay Bruno. Through 10 games, Bruno (177 yards) and running backs Erin Collins (175) and Ludovick Choquette (174) are the team’s leading rushers.

(Kickoff: 11 a.m.; TV: Marquee and ESPN-Plus; Radio:

Key matchup to watch

ISU running backs vs. Western run defense: The Redbirds’ stable of running backs rushed for a season-low 45 yards last week in a loss to No. 1 South Dakota State. They could get healthy against WIU, which has allowed 241.3 rushing yards per game and 36 touchdowns on the ground.

What’s at stake?

With playoff possibilities off the table, the Redbirds are playing for a winning season.

Quick hits

Vandenburgh has the second-most sacks in FCS with 10.5 this season and ranks third nationally with 17 tackles for loss, according to The ISU single-season records in both categories belong to Brent Hawkins, who posted 17 sacks and 26.5 TFLs in 2005. Central Arkansas sophomore defensive end David Walker is the current national FCS leader in both sacks (11) and tackles for loss (18). … After backup Tommy Rittenhouse started the past two games, Spack said the top quarterback for Saturday’s game is uncertain. Starter Zack Annexstad (shoulder injury) did throw the ball Tuesday during practice, Spack said. … Illinois State (17) and Western Illinois (13.7) are among the four lowest-scoring offenses in the 11-team MVFC. ISU ranks seventh, while Western is 11th. Six teams average at least 27.7 points, with North Dakota State (34.1) leading the league.

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