The Redbirds have advanced to the quarterfinals for the third time in school history.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Illinois State quarterback Matt Brown led the Redbirds to their first playoff victory since 2006 with a stellar performance last Saturday at Appalachian State. The 2012 Missouri Valley Football Conference Offensive Player of the Year and All-MVFC First-Team selection threw for 322 yards and five touchdowns to lead the Redbirds to the overtime victory. The Marion, Ill., native leads ISU and the MVFC in passing yards (2,998), yards per game (249.8), total offense (3,138) and touchdown passes (25) He has tallied three 300-plus yard passing games in 2012.
Following a dramatic overtime road win over No. 6 Appalachian State, No. 15 Illinois State (9-3, 5-3 MVFC) has advanced to the FCS playoff quarterfinals for the first time since 2006 and will face No. 4 Eastern Washington (10-2, 7-1 Big Sky), when the Redbirds travel to Cheney, Wash., to face the Eagles on the bright red turf of Roos Field. The game will be streamed live on the Internet on ESPN3.
Illinois State and Eastern Washington will face off for the second time Saturday. The Redbirds picked up a 31-14 victory over the Eagles in 1987 at Albi Stadium in Spokane, Wash., in the only other meeting between the two programs. ISU is 2-2 all-time against current members of the Big Sky Conference.
Illinois State: Brock Spack (Purdue, 1983) is in his fourth season as the head coach at Illinois State (28-17). Spack led the Redbirds to their first playoff victory since 2006, just the third nine-win season in school history and is a finalist for the 2012 Eddie Robinson Award.
Eastern Washington: Beau Baldwin (Central Washington 1996) is in his fifth year at the helm of the Eastern Washington football program (43-18). Baldwin is also a finalist for the 2012 Eddie Robinson Award and guided Eastern Washington to the 2010 NCAA Division I FCS National Championship.
THE PROGRAM IN THE PLAYOFFS
- Fourth playoff appearance in school history (1998, 1999, 2006, 2012)
- Third appearance in FCS quarterfinals (1999, 2006, 2012)
- 4-3 overall record in FCS playoff games in school history
- 3-3 record in road playoff games, including 1-1 record in 2006
- The 1999 team advanced to the FCS semifinals, with wins at home over Colgate and on the road against Hofstra. ISU eventually fell to eventual national champion Georgia Southern by a score of 28-17 in the semifinals, as Payton Award winner Adrian Peterson ran for three touchdowns and 183 yards on the ground.
THIS WEEK'S OPPONENT
- Eastern Washington University is located in Cheney, Wash., and has an enrollment of 12,130 students. The Eagles are members of the Big Sky Conference and play their home games at Roos Field (8,600)., which is also known as "The Inferno" for its bright red artificial turf.
- Eastern Washington won the 2010 NCAA Division I National Championship, after defeating No. 9 Southeast Missouri State (37-17), No. 25 North Dakota State (38-31 in overtime) and defending champion No. 10 Villanova (41-31) in three home playoff games, then defeated No. 5 Delaware (20-19) in the championship game in Frisco,Texas.
- EWU is making its ninth FCS playoff appearance this season, after finishing the regular season with a 9-2 record and winning its sixth Big Sky Conference title in school history.\
- Last week, Eastern Washington defeated Wagner, 29-19, in its second-round game at Roos Field. Junior quarterback Kyle Padron passed for 327 yards and junior wide receiver Brandon Kaufman caught 10 passes for 174 yards to lead the Eagles to the victory.
- With the victory over Wagner, the Eagles improved to a perfect 6-0 at home this season and they are now 16-2 at The Inferno since 2010, when the red turf was installed and the stadium was renamed.
- EWU features a two-headed attack at quarterback. Padron, a junior transfer from SMU, has passed for 2,016 yards and 11 touchdowns in nine games. He shares the stage with freshman Vernon Adams, who is one of 20 players on the ballot for the Jerry Rice Award. Adams has thrown for 1,586 yards,14 touchdowns, and has added 308 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
- Their favorite target is junior wide receiver Brandon Kaufman, an All-Big Sky First-Team selection. Kaufman has hauled in 75 passes for 1,444 yards and caught 10 touchdowns.
- The Eagles' defense is led by junior linebacker Ronnie Hamlin, who was named an All-Big Sky First-Team selection this season. Hamlin has amassed 117 total tackles this season and has added eight tackles-for-loss to go along with an intercetpion and two forced fumbles. He aided by senior defensive end and All-Big Sky First-Team selection Jerry Ceja, who leads the team with 11 sacks and 14 tackles-for-loss on the season.
THE LAST TIME THEY MET
Illinois State and Eastern Washington have met one other time on the gridiron. The game took place Oct. 17, 1987, in Spokane, Wash. After EWU jumped out to an early 7-0 lead after a 100-yard kickoff return to start the game, ISU answered with 31 consecutive points to pull away for the victory. The Redbirds controlled the game on the ground, as they piled up 339 yards rushing and held EWU to -26 yards. Fullback Vic Northern led the way with 133 yards on 26 carries and Ron Westmoreland chipped in 107 yards and a touchdown for ISU. Rick Seitz also chipped in with a 45-yard field goal for the Redbirds.
A CHAMPIONSHIP PEDIGREE
The road to the FCS quarterfinals has not been easy for the Redbirds and it doesn't get any easier this weekend against No. 4 ranked Eastern Washington. ISU has had to face a former FCS national championship programs in its prior two contests and will have the 2010 FCS National Champion Eagles awaiting them Saturday. Last year's FCS champion North Dakota State defeated the Redbirds in the regular-season finale (Nov. 17), before the Redbirds picked up the overtime victory against three-time national champion Appalachian State (Dec. 1).
SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE
Illinois State will put its perfect 6-0 record on the road up against Eastern Washington's perfect 6-0 at home at "The Inferno" at Roos Field. With their victory on the road against Appalachian State (Dec. 1), the Redbirds tied a Missouri Valley Football Conference record with six road wins in a season, tying the mark set by Northern Iowa in 2007, and extended their road winning streak to eight games overall dating back to last season. A total of seven FCS teams were perfect on the road this year, and the MVFC has two of those seven, with North Dakota State being the other.
REDBIRDS FLYING BACK HOME
Despite the two states being over 1000 miles apart, the Illinois State football program has a lot of Washington state representation on it. ISU offensive coordinator Luke Huard is a Puyallup, Wash., native and was the Gatorade Washington Player of the Year as a senior before heading to North Carolina to play collegiate football. He later returned to the Evergreen State to be the head coach at Interlake High School, before serving as a graduate assistant on Washington's coaching staff, where he helped tutor Pac-10 Conference Newcomer of the Year Jake Locker. Assistant coach Sheldon Cross is also a native of Washington and attended Stadium High School in Tacoma. Cross also previously served as the head football coach at Interlake High School in Bellevue, Wash., and spent the 2010 season as the offensive graduate assistant at Washington State. The player roster also features three Washington natives in running back Cameron Hunt (Sammamish, Wash.), 2012 MVFC All-Newcomer Team selection Alex Donnelly (Kirkland, Wash.) and Joe Farmer (Snoqualmie, Wash.).
A SEASON FOR THE RECORD BOOKS
Not only has the team success for the Redbirds been worthy of noting in the annuls of ISU football history, but the numbers quarterback Matt Brown has put up in 2012 have also re-written the record books. Brown needs just 17 pass attempts, five completions, 40 yards passing and two touchdown to take over the single-season school records in each category. Former Redbird great and current CFL quarterback Kevin Glenn holds each of those single-season records, but all should fall early in the game at Eastern Washington.
BIRDS IN THE BIG SKY
The Redbirds have only played four games against current members of the Big Sky Conference and have posted a 2-2 record in those contests. ISU is 1-0 against Eastern Washington, with a 31-14 defeat of the Eagles in Spokane, Wash., in 1987. The Redbirds are also 1-1 against Southern Utah, with a season-opening loss to the Thunderbirds on the road in 1997 and a dominating 42-14 victory over them at Hancock Stadium in 1998. The only other game against a Big Sky Conference opponent came in 1979, when ISU dropped a 20-0 decision to North Dakota.
NINE IS FINE
With its victory in overtime at No. 6 Appalachian State (Dec. 1), Illinois State secured just the third nine-win season in school history. The Redbirds (9-3) also won nine games in 2006 on their way to advancing to the FCS playoff quarterfinals. The 1999 team set the school record with an 11-3 overall record and a perfect 6-0 conference record. ISU finished the regular season with a 9-2 record and picked up playoff wins over Colgate and Hofstra, before falling to eventual national champion Georgia Southern in the semifinals.
REDBIRD BLOCK PARTY
When ISU defensive lineman Shelby Harris blocked Sam Martin's extra point attempt to season the Redbird overtime victory over No. 6 Appalachian State (Dec. 1), it came as shock to many in the stadium and certainly everyone on the opposing sideline. However, it may not have been as big of shock if they took a look at the success the Redbirds have had blocking kicks over the past four seasons. ISU had blocked at least four kicks (field goals, punts, PATs) in the past four years and Harris' block was the fifth of the 2012 season for the Redbirds. Sophomore safety Dontae McCoy leads the way with three blocked punts, while Harris and fellow defensive lineman Colton Underwood have each blocked a kick.
Illinois State state senior quarterback Matt Brown is often referred to by his teammates and coaches as QB #1, and it just so happens that the rest of the league's head coaches, sports information directors and media members see him that way as well. Brown was named the 2012 Missouri Valley Football Conference Offensive Player of the Year in the league's annual vote and was also tabbed as an All- MVFC First-Team selection. With the honor, Brown becomes the third Redbird in school history to win the league's offensive player of the year award. He joins running back Toby Davis (1992) and current Jacksonville Jaguar wide receiver Laurént Robinson (2005) as winners of the league's top offensive honor. Brown adds this to his mantle along with the 2009 MVFC Freshman of the Year Award.
EIGHT IS GREAT
Led by 2012 Missouri Valley Football Conference Offensive Player of the Year Matt Brown, a school-record eight Illinois State football players were named All-MVFC First-Team selections Monday by the conference office. Brown picked up All-MVFC First-Team honors for the first time in his illustrious career and was joined on the first team by senior wide receiver Tyrone Walker, senior offensive lineman Pete Cary, and junior fullback Jordan Neukirch. Four Redbird defenders also earned All-MVFC First-Team honors for the first time in their careers. Junior defensive end Colton Underwood, senior middle linebacker Mike Zimmer, senior free safety Ben Ericksen and junior defensive tackle Shelby Harris rounded out the record-number of Redbird first-team honorees.
UNDERWOOD ON BUCHANAN WATCH LIST
It's been five years since an Illinois State defensive player was named to the Buck Buchanan Award Watch List, which recognizes the top defensive player in the FCS. That changed earlier this season, when junior defensive end Colton Underwood was added to the list of the 20 top players from around the country. Underwood's numbers speak for themselves, as he leads the Missouri Valley Football Conference in sacks (10.5) and tackles-for-loss (19.5) and he has added a staggering 95 total tackles. The Washington, Ill., native is also nationally ranked in both categories at No. 6 in tackles-for-loss and No. 10 in sacks. Underwood is the fifth Redbird player to be named to the prestigious list and the first since 2007, when linebacker Kye Stewart finished fourth overall in the voting. Former All-American linebacker Boomer Grigsby was a three-time finalist for the award from 2002-04, finishing as runner-up in 2003 to current Minnesota Vikings star Jared Allen. Defensive end Brent Hawkins and linebacker Cameron Siskowic were both finalists in 2005 and Siskowic finished fifth in the voting the following year in 2006.
Most teams don't look forward to playing extra downs in overtime, but the Redbirds have come out on top of both of their overtime contests in 2012. ISU needed two overtime periods to put away Ohio Valley Conference champion and FCS playoff participant Eastern Illinois in week three by a score of 54-51. It was a bit easier against No. Appalachian State (Dec. 1), as the Redbirds needed just one play in overtime and took advantage of a blocked PAT attempt to come away with the victory. Overall, the Redbirds are 7-5 in overtime contests dating back to 1995.
AMONG THE BEST IN THE GAME
After leading his team to an 8-3 regular-season record and the team's first playoff appearance since 2006, Illinois State head football coach Brock Spack was named one of 20 finalists for the Eddie Robinson Award by The Sports Network. The award is presented annually for the national coach of the year in the Football Championship Subdivision. Spack joins North Dakota State head coach Craig Bohl as Missouri Valley Football Conference representatives on this year's list and will face off this weekend against another coach on the list, Eastern Washington's Beau Baldwin.
MAKING AN IMMEDIATE IMPACT
Since the arrival of head coach Brock Spack in 2009, the Redbirds have had at least four players each year that were honored for their first-year efforts in the program as a member of the Missouri Valley Football Conference All-Newcomer Team. This season, that trend continued, as ISU had five players named to the annual list that recognizes the achievements of freshmen, redshirt freshmen and first-year transfers. This year, offensive tackles Josh Aladenoye and Jermaine Barton, wide receiver Phil Dudley, linebacker Alex Donnelly and strong safety Ezra Thompson were recognized by the voters for their play on the field. The five selections were the most among league schools in 2012.
One of Illinois State's team goals for the year was to be road warriors and have a perfect record on the road. After the Redbirds' 17-10 victory at Indiana State (Nov. 3), they improved to 5-0 away from home this season. The five road wins are the most for a Redbird team since 2006 and the most for a Spack team in his four years at Illinois State. With the victory, ISU also recorded its first spotless record on the road since 1937, when the team was 5-1-2 overall with the only loss coming at home. The Redbirds improved on that mark and went to 6-0, following the team's playoff road victory in overtime at Appalachian State (Dec. 1).
'BIRDS FLYING HIGH IN POLLS
The Illinois State football team has set up shop in the national polls during the 2012 season and has little plans of moving out. After heading into the season ranked in both The Sports Network and FCS Coaches Polls in 2012, ISU was ranked No. 15 in the final regular-season FCS Coaches Poll and No. 17 in The Sports Network Top 25 Poll and this week, following its loss to No. 1 North Dakota State (Nov. 17). The Redbirds have now been ranked for 18-straight weeks, dating back to last season.
When Ashton Leggett ran for over 1,000 yards last season, he became the first Redbird back to do so since 2006. If not for a broken hand that forced senior Darrelynn Dunn to miss a game and play with a cast for the last several games, he could have joined Leggett in the 1,000 yard club. Even though he may not get to that plateau, Dunn has made a huge impact in the rushing game for the Redbirds in 2012. Dunn has rushed for 917 yards and scored 12 touchdowns on the ground, the most for an ISU player since 2006. Dunn has rushed for over 100 yards and scored multiple touchdowns in four contests this season.
The defensive line trio of Colton Underwood, Nate Palmer and Shelby Harris have been a dominant force up front for the Redbirds and have become the best TFL artists in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. All three are among the conference leaders in tackles-for-loss, with Underwood leading the way with 19.5 on the season. Palmer is ranked fourth in the league with 14 TFLs and Harris is just behind in fifth place with 13. The trio has helped the team amass 87 tackles-for-loss this season, which ties the 2012 for sixth on the school's single-season list with the 1999 squad.
TAKEAWAYS THE NAME OF THE GAME
Last season, the Illinois State defense played extremely well but was not able to get key interceptions at tough times. The Redbirds only had three interceptions all last season, but have turned that around in 2012 with 16 interceptions. Senior safety and All-MVFC First-Team selection Ben Ericksen leads the way and is No. 2 in the country in interceptions with seven. A total of eight different players have recorded picks, with cornerback Mike Banks and safety Ezra Thompson adding two apiece. The 16 total interceptions tie for ninth on the single season list, matching the mark of 16 last achieved in 1999.