(STATS) – Seven Missouri Valley teams will have a chance to knock off FBS foes Saturday, but Illinois State figures to draw the most attention.
The No. 2 Redbirds visit Iowa boasting their highest-ever preseason ranking after a national runner-up finish last year. Coming off its first conference title in 15 seasons and a school-record 13 wins, Illinois State hasn’t played a Big Ten opponent since a 37-3 loss to Northwestern in 2010, which dropped it to 0-7 all-time against that league.
The Redbirds are 6-35 against FBS opponents, three years removed from a 31-14 defeat of Eastern Michigan under seventh-year coach Brock Spack.
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"A tough assignment. I’ve had a lot of experience against coach (Kirk) Ferentz and the Hawkeyes, they’re a very good team," Spack said of the schools’ first-ever meeting. "Iowa will be a formidable task for us."
MVC schools are 2-51 all-time against the Big Ten, with North Dakota State most recently winning at Minnesota in 2011.
Spack, who served as defensive coordinator at his alma mater Purdue from 1997-2008, was last on the other side of a Big Ten-Valley matchup in 2006 for a 60-35 Boilermaker victory against Indiana State. His hopes for an upset Saturday will ride largely on the back of senior quarterback Tre Roberson, who is no stranger to Kinnick Stadium.
Roberson, who threw for 3,221 yards and 30 TDs in 2014 after transferring from Indiana, was 16 of 24 for 197 yards and a touchdown and ran 16 times for 84 yards in the Hoosiers’ 45-24 loss at Iowa in 2011.
Spack said Roberson’s work ethic is reminiscent of Drew Brees, who gave Spack plenty of headaches in practices at Purdue.
"He’s different than Brees in a lot of respects … where they are similar is how they prepare," Spack said. "Drew spent a lot of time in preparation, he did a lot of film study. This guy (Roberson) is no different than any other great quarterback I’ve been around."
Illinois State offensive coordinator Kurt Beathard is also the uncle of Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard, who is making his second career start. The Hawkeyes are 7-0 against MVC teams.
Another connection: Redbird linebacker Reggie Spearman, who had 49 tackles in 21 games for Iowa from 2013-14 before transferring. Spearman is listed as a backup strong-side linebacker. Spack said he’s still learning the system, so it’s unclear how much playing time he’ll see.
Three other ranked MVC squads are taking on FBS competition Saturday, and Northern Iowa may represent the conference’s best shot at an upset when it visits Iowa State.
The Panthers, ranked 10th in the STATS FCS poll after reaching the second round of the playoffs a season ago, have created a near-annual tradition of putting a scare into an FBS program – if not defeating one. They’re two years removed from a 28-20 victory against the Cyclones and came up just short in a 31-23 loss at Iowa in 2014. They also lost 20-19 in Ames in 2011 and 26-21 at No. 12 Wisconsin in 2012.
Iowa State is 16-5 against the Missouri Valley after losing 34-14 to North Dakota State last year en route to a 2-10 finish.
No. 16 South Dakota State will also travel to Kansas for the first time since a 31-17 loss in 2012. Though the Jackrabbits have to replace running back Zach Zenner, who has carved out a spot with the Detroit Lions after finishing second in the Valley last year with 2,019 rushing yards, the Jayhawks are a relative unknown in their first year under new head coach David Beaty.
"There’s a lot of gray area for us," South Dakota State coach John Stiegelmeier said of facing a new coaching staff. "We don’t change much … We’re going to have to go down there and be ready to react and adjust as coaches. I think for a football staff it’s a unique situation because you do so much planning."
Missouri Valley teams have accounted for at least two wins against FBS opponents in each of the last four seasons, and won three such games in 2012 and 1987. Indiana State won at Ball State last year to complement North Dakota State’s victory at Iowa State.
The final ranked Valley team taking a step up in competition is No. 14 Youngstown State, which begins the Bo Pelini era by visiting Pittsburgh. Pelini, who went 67-27 at Nebraska before returning to his hometown, will be facing a fellow first-year coach in former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi.
The two share a history going back to their high school playing days with Narduzzi’s Ursuline squad toppling Pelini and Cardinal Mooney in the 1984 Steel Valley Conference title game. Narduzzi also played a season of linebacker at Youngstown State before transferring to Rhode Island.
"I’m sure the things I emphasize will be very similar to what Pat emphasizes over at Pitt," he said. "It’s about discipline, accountability, toughness, practicing a certain way, preparing a certain way and playing the game the way it needs to be played."
Dave Steckel also makes his debut at Missouri State after a four-year stint as defensive coordinator with Missouri. The Bears visit Memphis on Saturday night.
CHECKING IN WITH THE BISON=
Top-ranked North Dakota State is in the midst of an idle week, which comes at a good time following last Saturday’s heavyweight tussle with No. 13 Montana. Quarterback Carson Wentz isn’t practicing after suffering a high ankle sprain in the 38-35 last-second loss and is questionable for the Bison’s next contest against Weber State on Sept. 12. He’ll be evaluated Monday.
As for the rest of the Bison, who suffered just their fourth loss in 62 games, defensive coordinator Matt Entz said the layoff between games should be a benefit.
"On defense we have an extremely young bunch of kids," Entz said. "The old adage that between Games 1 and 2 you make your most dramatic improvement – hopefully you’ll see that with the Bison ‘D’ against Weber State."