ISU Smith for advance

Illinois State running back Markel Smith (21) pulls away from Eastern Illinois defenders in a game last month in Charleston. Smith and the Redbirds will try to get their ground game back on track Saturday at Southern Illinois. 

CARBONDALE — In 2016, the Illinois State football team followed its first loss of the season with another. And another. And another.

Four straight defeats after a 2-0 start hamstrung the Redbirds the rest of the season.

A 4-0 beginning and a top 10 national ranking was ISU’s profile before last week’s humbling 37-16 loss at unranked Northern Arizona.

“We can learn a lot from failure and a loss,” said Redbird coach Brock Spack. “But it only takes one to learn enough. Let’s not let one loss turn into two.”

To avoid that fate, ISU must defeat Southern Illinois in a 2 p.m. Missouri Valley Football Conference game Saturday at Saluki Stadium.

The 15th-ranked Redbirds are tied with North Dakota State and South Dakota atop the MVFC at 2-0. Southern is 2-3 overall and 0-2 in league play.

“Illinois State has a great defense, one of the best that we’ve seen,” Saluki coach Nick Hill said. “On third down, they do a good job of bringing pass rushers and mixing up their blitzes.”

That ISU defense will be without starting free safety Mitchell Brees for the first half because of a targeting penalty last week. DraShane Glass will start in Brees’ place.

Southern quarterback Sam Straub is completing 53 percent of his passes, while throwing for 1,142 yards and 13 touchdowns. Darrell James (23 catches, 343 yards) and Connor Iwema (22, 327) are the top receivers.

"Completing 50 percent of your passes is not a winning formula," Hill said. "We have to get that changed. Sam knows that and we have full confidence in doing that. Some of that is on us, giving him some things to get him in a rhythm."

Spack is concerned with the big-play ability of tailback Daquan Isom, who has rushed for 346 yards.

“The tailback is an excellent jump cut guy. He’s very, very quick,” said Spack. “He is a dart. He has foot speed and toughness.”

The Redbird running game has stalled the past two weeks with under 65 yards against both Indiana State and Northern Arizona.

“We’ve got to get back to it, stay focused and execute when we get the ball in our hands,” said tailback Markel Smith, whose 282 yards on the ground are a close second to the 290 of James Robinson. “I think it’s still there. We know it’s still there. Once we get back to it, we’ll get back rolling.”

ISU will likely be without starting receiver Christian Gibbs, who has not practiced this week because of a toe injury.

Without Gibbs’ 22 catches for 389 yards, Matt Biegalski, Antonio Hadden Jr. and Kentre Patterson are all candidates for more snaps alongside Spencer Schnell (27 receptions) and Anthony Fowler (13). Patterson is a true freshman who has yet to play this season.

Spack also has indicated he is strongly considering inserting redshirt freshman quarterback Malachi Broadnax as a temporary change of pace to starter Jake Kolbe. While Kolbe is a pocket passer, Broadnax is more of a running threat.

Fisher native Hans Carmien is Southern’s fullback. The 245-pound senior has 31 yards and a touchdown on four carries.

ISU has three straight wins over the Salukis, including a 31-28 decision last season at Hancock Stadium.

The game will be broadcast on ESPN3.

For updates before and during Saturday's game, follow Randy Reinhardt on Twitter: @Pg_Reinhardt

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Sports Writer

Sports Writer for The Pantagraph.

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