NORMAL — Aiming for a fresh start after a pair of discouraging losses, the Illinois State football team would be well served by a quick start as well Saturday at Hancock Stadium.
Upstart South Dakota has rocketed to No. 4 in the FCS national rankings largely on the strength of early domination entering ISU’s 2 p.m. homecoming game.
The Coyotes, who are 6-0 overall and 3-0 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, have outscored opponents 87-13 in the opening quarter and 161-42 in the first half.
“They are a very good team,” said ISU coach Brock Spack, whose 24th-ranked team is 4-2 and 2-1 in the MVFC. “They don’t make mistakes. They protect the football.”
Handling the football the most for South Dakota has been quarterback Chris Streveler, who was named a Walter Payton Award (top FCS offensive player) candidate earlier this week.
A transfer from Minnesota, Streveler is completing 67.4 percent of his passes for 1,865 yards, 17 touchdowns and no interceptions. The 6-foot-3, 215-pounder also is the Coyotes’ leading rusher with 448 yards.
“He can run the ball. He’s not going to sit in the pocket and throw. If he sees a lane, he’s going to go,” said Redbird linebacker Ty DeForest. “We’ve got to keep our eyes on him.”
Spack called Streveler a rare quarterback who “steps in the huddle and everybody is better because they’re in it. He’s a strong guy with plenty of arm strength. He makes good decisions with the football. They are rallying around him and playing well around him.”
A Redbird defense that was so stingy while winning its first four games has coughed up a combined 79 points and 980 yards in losses to Northern Arizona and Southern Illinois.
“We don’t play that way here. That is what’s concerning,” Spack said. “We’ve got to get back to who we are, and we’re on a quest to do that.”
“Our defense knows what it’s capable of,” said DeForest. “We have not played to our potential the last couple weeks. This week is big for us to come back out and prove to everybody we still are who we are.”
South Dakota is gunning for its first 7-0 start since 2005 in Coach Bob Nielson’s second season at the helm. The Coyotes, who were picked seventh in the league’s preseason poll, joined the Valley in 2012 and were 9-31 in conference games entering the season.
With only one offensive turnover all season, South Dakota has led for 308 minutes thus far and trailed for only 10. The Coyotes’ defense ranks second nationally with 24 sacks.
“Defensively, they are very tough to run against,” Nielson said. “The key for us is to have some balance offensively, spread them out to do what we do effectively.”
The struggling ISU offense has eight turnovers the past two weeks, six on interceptions thrown by quarterback Jake Kolbe.
Kolbe has thrown for 1,524 yards, eight touchdowns and eight interceptions. James Robinson (371 yards) is the leading rusher.
“We’ve got to defend the field and stop their running game first,” said Nielson. “Playing at their place, they will have a great crowd. I’m sure they will be ready to put out their best game of the year, and we have to match that.”
The game will be broadcast on NBC Sports Chicago.