NORMAL — Illinois State rediscovered its big-play mojo Saturday at Hancock Stadium and pulled off a gargantuan victory.
With Spencer Schnell hauling in a 64-yard touchdown pass and James Robinson scooting 87 yards for another score, the No. 24-ranked Redbirds upended No. 4 South Dakota, 37-21, before a homecoming crowd of 12,113.
“This is really big for our young team. We grew up quite a bit today,” said ISU coach Brock Spack, whose team stumbled the previous two weeks in double digit losses. “It’s been a very difficult two weeks. We’re going to enjoy this.”
The Redbirds, who managed only one gain of 40 or more yards the past two games, reeled off five while improving to 5-2 overall and 3-1 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
“We didn’t give up many big plays, and we made big plays,” Spack said. “We thought if we could make this team drive the field we would be in pretty good shape.”
ISU sped to a 14-0 first-quarter lead against a pack of Coyotes that had trailed for only 10 minutes all season.
First, Redbird quarterback Jake Kolbe threw over the middle to Schnell, who split two defenders on his way to the end zone for a 64-yard score escorted only by fellow receiver Anthony Fowler.
“That was a play we had a couple difficulties with in practice,” said Schnell. “When it showed up in the game, it was the (defensive) look we were looking for. Jake found me right past the (line)backer. When I turned up field, all I saw was daylight.”
ISU then capped an 83-yard march with another Kolbe to Schnell connection, this time from 5 yards out on third and goal.
After Redbird safety Alec Kocour snapped South Dakota quarterback Chris Streveler’s string of 195 passes without an interception, the Coyotes burned a Redbird cornerback blitz by finding tight end Brett Samson for a 50-yard touchdown strike.
South Dakota (6-1, 3-1) pulled into a 14-all tie on a 2-yard scoring pass from Streveler to Aaron Ramsey at the 5:02 mark of the second quarter.
ISU took a three-point edge into halftime after Sean Slattery drilled a 47-yard field goal with 1:06 showing.
“It was really good to win the way the game unfolded,” Spack said. “We were able to go through adversity and fight back. I never had an idea the game was slipping away, even when they tied it.”
After South Dakota’s Ryan Weese was wide left on a 40-yard field goal try, Kolbe honed in on Schnell again for a 71-yard field flipper to the Coyotes’ 14. Robinson took a delayed handoff the rest of the way on the next snap for a 24-14 Redbird margin.
“We got beat in all three phases of the game,” said South Dakota coach Bob Nielson. “For the first time all year, we gave up a bunch (331) of yards rushing. That was one of the things coming in we knew we couldn’t do to have a chance to win.”
Kai Henry’s 12-yard touchdown carry brought the Coyotes within 24-21 early in the fourth quarter before Slattery doubled the ISU lead on a 33-yard field goal with 9:21 left.
South Dakota drove inside the Redbird 10 in pursuit of a go-ahead score but came up empty when ISU end Matt Swaine swatted a Streveler pass on fourth-and-8 from the 10.
Two plays later, Robinson exploded through a crease on the right side and sprinted 87 yards down the right sideline, outracing the Coyotes’ defense for the back-breaking score.
Davontae Harris halted the next South Dakota possession with an interception, and Slattery tacked on a 45-yard field goal for the final margin with 1:36 to play.
“It was a big week for us coming off two losses. We were never down. We had a couple bad games and came back from it,” said Robinson, who rushed for a career-high 193 yards on 19 carries. “They were undefeated so that gave us a lot of energy to show people.”
The Redbird defense harassed Streveler all afternoon. But the rugged 6-foot-3, 215-pounder seldom went down. Streveler tossed up a whopping 63 passes, completing 39 for 440 yards.
“It’s not our brand of football to throw 63 passes. That’s not where our offense is most efficient,” Nielson said. “I was disappointed we didn’t run the ball better. We got away from it at times when we should have stayed with it.”
Also South Dakota’s leading rusher, Streveler was held to 29 yards on the ground.
“We were able to tackle him for minimal gains, and those hits add up,” Spack said. “He throws well on the run, but we really had him running for his life.”
Schnell amassed a career-high 191 yards on seven catches. Kolbe was a productive 12 of 19 passing for 236 yards, and Markel Smith added 92 yards on the ground.
The offensive showcase finished with ISU holding a 567-554 edge in total yards.