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Illinois State fans cheer in unison during the Redbirds' 2015 homecoming game against Western Illinois at Hancock Stadium. ISU is in need of a homecoming boost on Saturday after two straight road losses.

Illinois State’s homecoming football game is Saturday. It did not sneak up on anyone. The folks in the alumni, athletic and/or administrative offices see to that each year.

“This is the God’s honest truth. Nobody does homecoming like Illinois State,” head coach Brock Spack said Tuesday. “It’s a happening.”

Want proof? Walk by Spack’s office in the Kaufman Football Building and you see a reminder with a Redbird head that reads, “Homecoming 2017.”

It was not put there yesterday.

“They send that out in May or April,” Spack said.

Homecoming is a weeklong group hug in Redbird land. It is a source of pride and passion, particularly on game day at Hancock Stadium.

Spack quickly grasped its importance in 2009, telling others after his first homecoming game as ISU coach, “We need to make every home game homecoming, with that energy.”

While arrival of “Homecoming 2017” may be the worst-kept secret on campus, its timing has never been better for Spack and his team.

Two weeks ago, ISU was 4-0 and ranked No. 7 nationally in the FCS. Road losses at Northern Arizona (37-16) and Southern Illinois (42-7) have dropped the Redbirds to No. 24 and torn into their psyche.

If ever a group needed a hug …

“We need our crowd behind us. Our players need it for confidence,” Spack said. “I think they’re in a fragile place right now. I don’t want to say they’re fragile, but they’re in a fragile place. They need the comfort of being at home.”

ISU is 6-2 in homecoming games under Spack, including a loss last year to eventual national runner-up Youngstown State. The opponent Saturday is no slouch, either. South Dakota is 6-0 and ranked fourth in the FCS polls.

A large and loud homecoming crowd can only do so much. It’s up to the Redbirds to get to their feet and, as Spack put it, “get back to who we are.”

Still, a full house or close to it on what is expected to be a gorgeous weather day (sunny, 74 degrees) should be uplifting for the home team.

Playing four of the first six games on the road created some “mental fatigue,” Spack said. The 42-7 pounding at Carbondale was clear evidence.

“We don’t play that way here,” Spack said.

By “here” he meant in his program, and he’s right. ISU is 66-37 in Spack’s tenure, the best winning percentage (.641) among Redbird coaches with more than one year.

In narrower terms, “here” could mean at Hancock Stadium. ISU is 25-3 at home since 2013, an indication the typical atmosphere at Hancock has become more and more like homecoming, just as Spack hoped for back in 2009.

Yet, homecoming remains a bit different. The vibe is unique.

“Around here, everything stops for homecoming,” Spack said.

Fact is every school celebrates homecoming. Southern Illinois had a blast while skewering the Redbirds on its homecoming last week.

Spack experienced homecoming as a player at Purdue, where he was an all-Big Ten linebacker in the early 1980s and still ranks fifth on the career tackles list.

What was it like?

Good question.

“Man, it’s been so long,” Spack said. “I had 400-plus hits in college and I usually led with my head like an idiot, so my memory is not as good as it used to be.

“But looking back on it, you feel the energy.”

Will the Redbirds feel it Saturday?

Given their state of mind and the opposition, they need every ounce.

Follow Randy Kindred on Twitter: @pg_kindred


Sports Editor

Sports editor for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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