NORMAL — The 11-game Illinois State football regular season football schedule consists of 22 halves and 44 quarters.
The Redbirds — or any other college team for that matter — cannot be expected to be in top form for all of those segments.
Yet the number of instances ISU has been rendered almost totally ineffective during a roller-coaster season is troubling to say the least, not to mention damaging to the Redbirds’ FCS playoff hopes.
“It’s an endless pursuit of perfection,” ISU coach Brock Spack said Tuesday. “Some weeks it’s just not clicking. Some quarters it’s just not clicking. We as coaches have to find those hot buttons to make these guys click and play better.”
After opening with decisive wins over Butler and Eastern Illinois, the Redbirds were tied with a currently 3-6 Missouri State team, 6-6, at halftime before blitzing the Bears with 28 third-quarter points.
The next week at home against Indiana State, ISU stormed to a 24-0 halftime lead but didn’t score in the second half and had to hang on for a 24-13 win over a Sycamores’ squad that hasn’t won in nine games.
The Redbirds were tied with Northern Arizona late in the first half on Oct. 7, but were outscored 31-10 the rest of the way.
Then, on Oct. 14 in Carbondale, ISU was outdone from start to finish in a baffling 42-7 loss to a Southern Illinois squad that is 1-4 in its other five Missouri Valley Football Conference outings.
“What scratches our head a little bit is we played with very good energy the last two weeks (before last Saturday’s loss to Western Illinois) and played very well,” said Spack. “And we were dead to the world down at Southern Illinois the whole game. We just never responded.”
The latest Jekyll and Hyde routine came against Western as a 14-0 halftime lead disintegrated into a 31-14 defeat to drop the 17th-ranked Redbirds to 6-3 overall and 4-2 in the MVFC entering Saturday’s 2 p.m. game at No. 5 South Dakota State.
“They have shown they can play very well,” Spack said. “I don’t want to continue to put the onus on youth. But a younger player is sometimes up and down, and certain positions are critical. If you don’t have a really good, sharp game, it’s going to show.”
Center Dean Helt maintains the Redbirds’ confidence has not been shaken by the inconsistency.
“We know we can do it. That’s the biggest thing. We’ve been there before,” said Helt. “We had good momentum and we kind of lost it. This is a new week, and that’s how we’re approaching it. We’ve got to find our rhythm and stick to it. We have to get back to the way we know we can play.”
Helt believes the routine of a season allows the Redbirds the proper time to recognize and learn from their mistakes during a Sunday video session before moving on to preparation for the next opponent.
Injury roundup: Markel Smith, ISU’s second-leading rusher, sat out practice Tuesday and is in the program’s concussion protocol after absorbing a hard hit while returning a kick against Western Illinois, but is expected to be available Saturday.
Spack lobbied for a targeting penalty against Western on the play, but the officials on the field and the replay official in the press box did not agree.
“It looked to me like he got hit with the crown (of the helmet) underneath his chin and he was defenseless,” said Spack. “We’ve had less get tossed. It seems like if there is any doubt at all, they are going to go with what was called on the field.”
The Redbirds also are likely to regain the services of wide receiver Anthony Fowler and defensive tackle Matt McCown. Fowler sat out last week’s game with an ankle injury and McCown is nursing a bone bruise.