NORMAL — Through seven games, the Illinois State football team has yet to play a game decided by 10 points or less.
Despite that seeming lack of drama, Redbird coach Brock Spack believes his team responded well to a similar level of pressure in last Saturday’s 37-21 victory over then No. 4-ranked South Dakota.
“It was a really good game for us. It had the ebbs and flows when you get a really good team,” Spack said. “The last four minutes that team was not going away. We had to have some big stops, some big drives and kick the ball well.”
At 5-2 overall and 3-1 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, ISU’s only other game with a margin of less than 21 points was a 24-13 victory over Indiana State on Sept. 30. In that contest, the Redbirds led 24-0 at halftime.
The Redbirds had not defeated a higher ranked team since vanquishing No. 1 New Hampshire in the 2014 FCS playoff semifinals.
“We really brought the energy,” defensive end Adam Conley said. “That’s something we look to carry over.”
Keep on running: While certainly pleased with his team’s season-best 331 rushing yards against South Dakota, Spack termed the work of his offensive line “very pedestrian."
“Believe it or not, they played just OK, I thought," he said. "I expect a lot more from them. I think there’s a lot more in the tank.”
Spack said the offensive front continues to make mistakes that can usually be traced to youth.
“There are things they are doing that Coach (Dan) Clark is pulling his hair out. It drives him crazy,” said the ISU coach. “We haven’t been able to play the same five every week. Are they getting better? Absolutely.”
Tackle Drew Himmelman, center-tackle Dean Helt, guard Jared Rients and center Garrett Hirsch all have missed time because of injury.
Hirsch left the South Dakota game in the first half after twisting an ankle. Helt took over at center and was presented MVFC Offensive Lineman of the Week honors for his effort.
Hirsch did not practice Tuesday, but Spack said the Normal Community High School graduate is “drastically better. I think he will be available (Saturday).”
Getting kick out of Slattery: ISU place-kicker Sean Slattery is second nationally with 1.86 field goals per game and tied for second with 13 field goals.
The Redbird record for field goals in a season is 22 set by Zach Kutch in 2009. Slattery ranks fifth in school history with 39 career field goals.
Gibbs practices: Wide receiver Christian Gibbs practiced fully Tuesday after missing the past two games with a toe injury. Gibbs caught 22 passes for 389 yards and four touchdowns in ISU’s first five games.
“Hopefully, he will be back in the mix,” said Spack. “I’ll be disappointed if he’s not able to play a few snaps for us this weekend.”
Who’s ranked higher?: The Redbirds travel to Youngstown State (3-4, 1-3) Saturday for a 1 p.m. league game. Yet the question of which team is ranked higher nationally has more than one answer.
ISU is ranked 16th with the Penguins 21st in the STATS FCS poll, while the rankings of the FCS Coaches place Youngstown No. 19 and the Redbirds No. 21.
Football weather: ISU practiced in cold, wet, windy conditions Tuesday at Hancock Stadium that Spack called “awesome football weather.
"A wet ball drill is nice to have this time of year. Our guys needed to do that, particularly our quarterbacks and receivers," he said.
Saturday’s Youngstown forecast calls for a high of 64 degrees with afternoon rain.
50-50 proposition: ISU had a monopoly on the No. 50 at Sunday's NFL game between Tennessee and Cleveland.
Former Redbird defenders Nate Palmer of the Titans and B.J. Bello of the Browns each wore 50.
Penguins still kicking: Youngstown State certainly cannot afford a fifth loss if the Penguins have any designs on an FCS playoff berth. But if ISU is defeated Saturday, a 4-0 finish for a 7-4 ledger is certainly possible.
The Penguins, who have lost their last three games by a total of 11 points, finish with Indiana State, Southern Illinois and Missouri State. Those three teams have a combined Valley record of 2-10.