CHARLESTON - Giving up a combined 107 yards rushing in its first two games, the Illinois State defense showed early signs of its potential.
In the season's second half, with Youngstown State rolling up 345 yards on the ground as the low point, the Redbirds exhibited signs of distress.
But in the single-elimination NCAA Division I Football Championships playoffs Saturday, the ISU defense was at its best.
Surrendering a season-low 138 yards of offense and returning two interceptions for touchdowns, the Redbirds overcame a shaky offensive performance to oust Eastern Illinois, 24-13, at O'Brien Stadium.
No. 11-ranked ISU meets Gateway Conference rival No. 5 Youngstown State next Saturday in the quarterfinals at Youngstown, Ohio. The Penguins scored 14 fourth-quarter points to edge James Madison, 35-31, Saturday.
"We've been saying we really haven't played a full four quarters of defense the way we want to play it. Today was the day," said ISU linebacker Cameron Siskowic. "Look at the scoreboard. Our defense beat their offense, 14-6, and one of the field goals they were already in field goal range."
The Redbirds gave up 30 points and 326 yards of offense to Eastern in a 14-point September victory at Hancock Stadium.
"We were really fortunate to have such a good game plan," Siskowic said. "Coach (Galen) Scott called such a good game and our coaches got us ready. We threw a couple of different things at them than last time and it just worked."
Niall Campbell paced ISU with 11 tackles. Siskowic added 10 and Kye Stewart eight.
Cornerback Lamont Lagrone recorded a sack, while safety James Temple broke up two passes and intercepted another.
Jason Tate and Jesse Caesar both returned interceptions for touchdowns.
ISU also held standout Eastern receiver Micah Rucker without a catch.
"I tried to follow him around and get in his head a little," said Caesar.
"We asked Jesse Caesar to take that responsibility and shut him down," Redbird coach Denver Johnson said. "He did a really good job."
Johnson was thrilled to see his defense make significant strides in a postseason game.
"Our whole defensive staff did a great job regrouping our defense and going back to fundamentals," said the ISU coach. "We didn't make a lot of mistakes, and we didn't miss many tackles. When we play that way, we're pretty salty."
On the road again
Even if No. 6 James Madison had defeated Youngstown State, ISU director of athletics Sheahon Zenger said the Redbirds would have traveled to Harrisonburg, Va.
"We've been told we're on the road regardless," Zenger said. "You put in bids all the way through (for first round, quarterfinal and semifinal games), but it's not on that criteria alone."
According to Zenger, ISU was not informed of the determining factor in James Madison being awarded the potential quarterfinal home game.
"They haven't told us anything to that nature," he said. "Illinois State continues to take the high road and believe things will be as they are meant to be. Our guys exemplified that today against adversity. I expect them to do that every step of the way."
Zenger emphasized that the financial bid of schools seeking to host a playoff game is one of "four or five criteria" the NCAA uses in assigning home games.
"When the season is over, Denver and I will sit down with the committee and ask some specific questions and see what we can do," said Zenger. "At this point, we feel like the good Lord is smiling on us, and we will continue to make it as big of time experience as we can for our young men who have earned this opportunity.
"We travel well, you can see that. We've done what we can to bring the band and cheerleaders and put our team in the nicest accommodations and make them feel like it's a playoff/bowl experience."
As the No. 4 seed in the 16-team field, Youngstown State was assured of another home game whether ISU or Eastern prevailed in Charleston.