NORMAL — None of Illinois State’s 91 plays from scrimmage resulted in a rush of more than 15 yards or a pass in excess of 20.
Eastern Illinois made sure nothing came easy for the Redbirds Saturday at Hancock Stadium.
Yet that made it all the more satisfying for ISU to close its rollercoaster season with a dramatic 27-23 nonconference victory over Eastern Illinois before a crowd of 4,566.
“It was an opportunity for me to send our seniors out the right way,” tailback Erik Smith said of his game-winning 3-yard touchdown plunge with 1:21 remaining. “It took all that was left from all of us.”
The Redbirds finished their second year under Brock Spack at 6-5, making Spack the first ISU coach to open his career with two winning seasons since Edwin Struck in 1945-46.
“I’m very happy for our seniors. To lead us to two winning seasons in a row, my hat’s off to those guys,” Spack said. “It’s been a grind, but we’ve got the foundation laid for a very good football program.”
The Redbirds converted two fourth downs, including a fourth-and-goal from the 1 to cap a 16-play drive that produced a 20-16 lead late in the third quarter.
Eastern (2-9) countered with a lengthy drive of its own as quarterback Jimmy Garappolo took a draw 4 yards up the middle to hand the Panthers a 23-20 edge.
After an exchange of punts, ISU took over at its own 39-yard line staring into the reality of a losing season. Quarterback Matt Brown marched the Redbirds 61 yards in 14 plays to victory.
“It was a great job by everybody,” said Brown. “When you go five-for-five on fourth down, that says a lot about your heart and a lot about your team. We showed a lot of courage and poise today.”
Smith bulled forward to secure the first down on fourth-and-1 from the 4 before running behind guard Keenan Wimbley for the 3-yard score on the next snap.
“When it’s short yardage, you’ve got to pound it in there and be physical,” tackle Chris Riley said. “They’ve got big guys. They stood in there hard. When you get down to the goal line, it’s a test of who wants it more.”
Eastern had 1:16 left for a miracle finish. But Redbird Shelby Harris sacked Garappolo on first down, Nick Broome stopped a short pass for a loss on third down and Bo Flowers’ fourth-down interception sealed the win.
“That was the best series we played all year,” said Harris. “The seniors took us all the way through. It means a lot. Everyone came together.”
The Panthers shocked ISU with a 71-yard Mon Williams touchdown sprint on the opening play from scrimmage. After Nick Martinez recovered a Smith fumble, a 27-yard Cameron Berra field goal saddled the Redbirds with a 10-0 deficit.
“It looked like it was going to be tough sledding for us,” Spack said. “Give our kids a lot of credit to come back and hang in there.”
Steven Fetzer field goals of 42 and 20 yards brought ISU within 10-6. Ashton Leggett’s 1-yard scoring surge on fourth-and-goal put the Redbirds in front at the 1:28 mark of the opening half.
Eastern seized the momentum back with a 19-yard touchdown toss from Garappolo to Kenny Whitaker just 27 seconds later.
“I thought this was a great game. We just got outplayed,” said Panthers’ coach Bob Spoo. “Going into this game we were first in our conference in red zone defense, but we just couldn’t keep them out of there.”
Brown passed for 238 yards and Leggett rushed for 77 as ISU outgained Eastern, 380-306.