Redbirds, Bears set to battle in first MVFC contest

(STATS) – Because of former stars like Marshaun Coprich, Tre Roberson and Anthony Warrum, Illinois State had earned headlines for its exceptional offensive prowess in previous seasons.

That has changed this year as the Redbirds’ outstanding play on defense is opening some eyes heading into the Missouri Valley Football Conference opener. Illinois State will try to continue that early trend Saturday at Missouri State as it tries to open 3-0 for the first time since winning its first seven en route to a national championship game appearance in 2014.

The 14th-ranked Redbirds top the nation in defensive scoring through two games, allowing just 6.5 points per game. They’re also first against the pass, giving up an average of 72 yards and second versus the run, surrendering a total of 14 net rushing yards.

“We’re playing pretty well,” ISU coach Brock Spack said. “We have to stay healthy and keep getting better each Saturday, but it’s nice to be playing well on defense – there’s no doubt about it.”

Spack has given credit to the Redbirds’ imposing defensive line, led by senior tackle Dalton Keene – a second team all-MVFC pick last season. Senior tackle Matt McCown, senior end Adam Conley and sophomore end Jason Harris have also played key roles.

Their work up front has opened things up for junior linebacker Tyree Horton, who finished with a team-high 11 tackles – 3 1/2 for loss – and two sacks in a 44-13 win over Eastern Illinois last weekend. The speedy 6-foot, 230-pounder also forced a fumble and was credited with a quarterback hurry as the Redbirds held the Panthers to 14 yards rushing and 117 total.

“They’re really good on defense,” Missouri State coach Dave Steckel conceded.

Steckel’s squad hopes to test the Redbirds with senior running back Calan Crowder setting up for a potentially dangerous passing game. Crowder, who has a team-high 291 rushing yards and three touchdowns, plowed in from two yards out with 1:53 left Saturday to give Missouri State a 28-21 home win over Murray State after road losses to Missouri (72-43) and North Dakota (34-0).

Malik Earl and Erik Furmanek have been quarterback Peyton Huslig’s favorite targets in the passing game. Earl has 14 catches for 243 yards and two scores, while Furmanek has 11 receptions for 211 yards. The Redbirds also are weary of senior Deion Holliman, who was named MVFC Special Teams Player of the Week after totaling 149 all-purpose yards with a pair of key punt returns Saturday.

“To be honest, this is the most talent team we’ve seen – particularly at receiver. They have very good backs as well and that combination makes them difficult to defend,” Spack said. “(Huslig) is a very good player. He’s strong. He’s tough. He runs the ball well and has enough arm strength to make you nervous. (Holliman) is the most dynamic returner we’ve seen since I’ve been here.

“We’ll have our hands full Saturday with a lot of things.”

ISU quarterback Jake Kolbe, who completed 13 of 16 passes for 218 yards last weekend, hopes to have a similar game to the one he had the last time he faced Missouri State in November. The then-sophomore threw for 246 yards and three scores in a 37-0 win.

The Redbirds, however, are likely to continue featuring a balanced rushing attack. Markel Smith has totaled a team-high 172 yards and two touchdowns, while James Robinson led the way with 89 yards and two scores against the Panthers last weekend.

Missouri State has struggled defensively so far, allowing league highs of 42.3 points and 538 total yards per game.

“I think what they’re going to want to do is establish the run,” Steckel said. “They want to pound you. They have a huge offensive line. (Kolbe) is not a great runner, but he is a great thrower and they have some talented receivers.”

ISU, which also rolled 38-2 in its last visit to Springfield in 2015, has won three in a row and six of the past eight meetings.