BROOKINGS, S.D. — The Illinois State football team's task is simple but treacherous.
The Redbirds travel to South Dakota State on Saturday for a 2 p.m. game knowing their current victory total is almost certainly insufficient for an FCS playoff berth.
That means ISU must change its current 6-3 mark to either 7-4 or 8-3 over the final two weeks of the regular season. The rub is the two remaining opponents are among the best FCS teams in the country.
On Saturday, the 17th-ranked Redbirds meet the No. 5-ranked Jackrabbits, who boast FCS' top quarterback-tight end-wide receiver combination. The Nov. 18 game at Hancock Stadium brings a visit from No. 6 North Dakota State, which has won five of the past six national championships.
"We really have to come together this week more than ever," said ISU center Dean Helt.
SDSU is 7-2 overall, while both teams remain in the Missouri Valley Football Conference title race at 4-2 (with South Dakota and Northern Iowa), one game behind 5-1 North Dakota State.
The Redbirds played the final game in what was a crumbling Coughlin-Alumni Stadium in 2015. In the same footprint has arisen sparkling new Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium, which held a near-capacity crowd of 18,130 for last week's win over North Dakota State.
"Our fat guys put it on their shoulders and said we're going to get this done," SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier said of second-half play that produced a 33-21 victory in the Dakota Marker rivalry.
Thinner Jackrabbits such as quarterback Taryn Christion, tight end Dallas Goedert and wide receiver Jake Wieneke are all candidates for the Walter Payton Award given to the top offensive player in FCS.
Christion has been red hot during SDSU's current three-game winning streak. The junior has passed for 2,383 yards, 23 touchdowns and only four interceptions on the season.
"They have firepower and a very good quarterback," said ISU coach Brock Spack.
Goedert is a 6-foot, 4, 260-pound force who could be the first FCS player taken in the 2018 NFL Draft. He has 48 receptions for 816 yards.
With 39 catches for 538 yards and 11 touchdowns, Wieneke's numbers are actually down a bit his senior season. The 6-4 Wieneke is third all-time among FCS receivers with 4,730 yards and 54 receiving touchdowns.
"They capitalize on big plays. We've got to eliminate the deep ball at all costs," said Redbird nickel back DraShane Glass. "The games we've been winning we limited the deep ball. The games we lost the deep ball beat us."
Stiegelmeier calls an ISU defensive line that regains the service of tackle Matt McCown from a bone bruise "very aggressive up front. We think their defensive line is very comparable to North Dakota State. We have to be ready to play a great football game."
The Redbirds will strive for a more even keeled offensive effort after leading Western Illinois 14-0 at halftime last week only to fall apart after the break in a 31-14 loss.
ISU quarterback Jake Kolbe is expected to have back wide receiver Anthony Fowler, who sat out last week with a sore ankle.
Slot receiver Spencer Schnell, wide receiver Christian Gibbs, tight end Tylor Petkovich and Fowler give the Redbirds four pass catchers with at least 18 receptions.
SDSU, which is headed for a sixth consecutive playoff appearance, features standout defenders in nose tackle Kellen Soulek and linebacker Christian Rozeboom.
"They've always been very good defensively, but I think they're a notch above what they were a year ago," Spack said. "They have tough kids who play hard."
The Redbirds handled the Jacks, 38-21, last season at Hancock Stadium. Christion threw for 440 yards but hoisted 63 passes to do it as ISU outrushed SDSU, 209-83.