NORMAL — Two consecutive Missouri Valley Football Conference wins over nationally ranked opponents have placed the Illinois State football team in a familiar position.
The Redbirds need another one.
“You can’t win a championship unless you win this game,” ISU coach Brock Spack said of Saturday’s noon tilt with Western Illinois at Hancock Stadium. “Every Saturday will take on a playoff atmosphere or attitude. I think both teams will play with an edge to them. You have to this time of year.”
The 12th-ranked Redbirds are 6-2 overall and 4-1 in the MVFC but face the middle game of a second-half gauntlet. After the 15th-ranked Leathernecks on Saturday, ISU travels to No. 10 South Dakota State before closing the regular season at home against No. 2 North Dakota State.
“The mindset is the meat grinder continues,” said Spack. “This is a hot conference. A lot of people are very good. We’ve put ourselves right in the mix of the conference title race, but the focus is on Western Illinois."
The Leathernecks (5-3, 2-3) are facing the last of five ranked teams in a six-week span and have unranked Indiana State and Southern Illinois remaining entering the 100th game in the ISU-WIU rivalry.
“Our goals are in front of us. We’ve got to fight our way in,” Western coach Charlie Fisher said of the FCS playoffs. “It’s life in the Valley. I believe the teams that can handle the highs and lows in this league and can move on to the next game and not lose an emotional edge are the ones that will survive.”
The Leathernecks are coming off two losses: 24-12 to North Dakota State and 52-24 to South Dakota State last Saturday.
Western will pit the MVFC’s leading tackler, linebacker Brett Taylor, against the league’s rushing yardage leader, ISU’s James Robinson.
“He’s definitely a great player,” said Redbird quarterback Jake Kolbe of Taylor. “He will be someone we have to watch out for on Saturday.”
Taylor’s 118 tackles are 72 more than any other Leatherneck. Yet Spack also is impressed with end Khalen Saunders, who has a team-high 5½ sacks.
Robinson (681 yards) and Markel Smith (496) have combined for 526 rushing yards the past two weeks. Kolbe has passed for 1,802 yards, and Spencer Schnell has hauled in 45 passes for 641 yards.
An ISU unit that ranks fifth nationally in rushing defense (77.3 yards) will be tested by speedy tailback Steve McShane, who has 367 yards after missing early action with an injury, and Max Norris with 483 yards.
Veteran quarterback Sean McGuire is completing 66 percent of his passes for 1,951 yards and has the Valley’s leading receiver in Jaelon Acklin (58 catches, 1,002 yards). Acklin also averages 18.2 yards on 11 rushing attempts.
“One X factor for us is our ability to put the ball on the edge with the jet sweep. That’s a big help,” Fisher said. “They are pretty stout. I don’t think you can plan on banging it out all night long.”
Spack called McGuire “an excellent player with a very strong arm. His accuracy is good, and he’s hard to get on the ground.”
Western’s offensive line features four seniors and a junior led by center Jacob Judd.
“They are very experienced up front on offense,” said Spack. “This is the most experienced team we’ve seen all year.”
The Family Day game will be broadcast on ESPN3.