Redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Rittenhouse rushed for an eight-yard touchdown in overtime to give Illinois State a 20-13 win. (Photo by GoRedbirds.com)
By Barry Bottino
NORMAL – Wenkers Wright felt the ball in his hands on the fourth play of overtime, just like he had the previous three plays. In a flash, the ball – and Illinois State quarterback Tommy Rittenhouse – were gone.
Rittenhouse made a timely decision to pull the ball from Wright’s grasp on a handoff and outraced Western Illinois cornerback J.J. Ross to the corner of the end zone at Hancock Stadium to secure a 20-13 OT victory that locked up a winning season for ISU (6-5 overall, 4-4 Missouri Valley Football Conference) Saturday.
“That was a designed run for me,” said Wright, who rushed for 129 yards and a touchdown. “Even I was surprised. I was like, ‘Oh no,” when I didn’t have the ball. But I’m glad he did it.”
ISU’s defense then smothered Western on its overtime drive, thanks to a batted pass on third down and a sack on fourth down from Redbird junior defensive end Josh Dinga, sending the Leathernecks (0-11, 0-8) to their first winless season since 1944.
Rittenhouse said he tried to carry out the handoff attempt as long as possible to get the Leathernecks to commit to Wright.
“I wanted to ride it out as long as I could and get those cornerbacks and safeties to come inside,” he said. “Once they came inside, I just pulled it and tried beating them to the edge.”
The Redbirds, who went scoreless in the second half, got a helping hand from their defense. And of course, that meant a big day from senior linebacker Zeke Vandenburgh, who piled up a career-high 17 tackles, 3.5 sacks, four tackles for loss and a forced fumble.
Vandenburgh entered the game second in FCS in total sacks (10.5) and first in sacks per game (1.17). His 14 sacks this season is tied for the second-best single-season total in ISU history. For his career, Vandenburg finished third all-time with 24 sacks.
Western used plenty of two-tight end sets to slow down Vandenburgh in the first half, when they rushed for 166 yards. In the second half, the Leathernecks were held to 66 yards on the ground.
“At the end of the day, we just played a lot better defense in the second half,” Vandenburgh said.
14:35, 1st quarter: Only 25 seconds into the game, safety Sy Dabney picked off a pass and returned it 36 yards for a TD.
2nd down, overtime: Rittenhouse called his own number and outraced a WIU defender to the corner of the end zone for the winning TD.
4th down, overtime: One play after batting down a pass, Dinga sacked WIU quarterback Henry Ogala to secure the win.
What it means
The Redbirds finished the season with a winning record and sent their seniors off with a win in their final game.
Prairie State Pigskin chooses the top three Redbird players in the game:
Vandenburgh, LB: In his final game in an ISU uniform, the Jack linebacker posted career highs in tackles, sacks and tied his career high in TFLs.
Wright, RB: The redshirt freshman scored a touchdown and rushed for 112 of his 129 yards in the final three quarters.
Dinga, DL: On third down and fourth down in overtime, he wrecked consecutive WIU plays.
Illinois State opens the 2023 season Sept. 2 with a non-conference home game against Dayton of the Pioneer Football League.