NORMAL - "I didn't really see it coming," claims Illinois State wide receiver Laurent Robinson.
Little wonder. The best receiving season in ISU and Gateway Conference history wasn't likely to announce itself.
And while greatness descended on Robinson during a spectacular junior year, its arrival was hardly an arbitrary gift.
"We did it so much, the repetition kind of was natural to me, getting in the open window so Luke can see me and hit me in the right spot," Robinson said of quarterback Luke Drone.
After catching hundreds of Drone passes in spring and summer workouts, Robinson caught 86 more for 1,465 yards when it counted this past season to earn Gateway Offensive Player of the Year honors.
Robinson is only the second Redbird to receive that honor and the first since running back Toby Davis in 1992.
Adding in 12 touchdowns to Robinson's amazing numbers helped him unseat the 2004 Offensive Player of the Year, Southern Illinois quarterback and fellow Walter Payton Award nominee Joel Sambursky.
"We felt like Laurent was very deserving of strong consideration for it," said Johnson. "But you never know how the voting is going to go, particularly for underclassmen. There are some awfully good players in the league."
Robinson caught 47 passes for 546 yards last season and was the top returning receiver for the only offense in the Gateway that did not return its starting quarterback.
"I was really impressed by him (Drone) stepping up this year as a first-year starter and having the year he did and making me have the year I had," Robinson said. "Last year I dropped some easy passes and didn't really make some of the tough catches.
"This year that was my main focus, having that big-play capability in my game so the defense has to cover me deep and short."
At 6-foot-2, 193 pounds, Robinson has the physical skills to succeed as a college wide receiver. But Johnson said the Rockledge, Fla., native doesn't stop there.
"He's got height, soft hands and great hand-eye coordination. I think he's a little faster than some people think," said the ISU coach. "He runs very disciplined routes. That's the trick to being a good receiver, one who can't betray their quarterback.
"If that quarterback is expecting you to run 14 yards down the field, put your toe in the ground and break it off at a 45 degree angle and you do that, then that quarterback has great confidence to let that ball go. He does have the skills to get open because he's very disciplined within the framework of the play."
Robinson, who attributes his precise route running to frequent film sessions with receivers coach Brad Cornelsen, was the final addition to the list of Payton Award nominees and finished 10th in the voting.
"I'm really honored to be on that list," he said. "I'm kind of surprised I even got on that list. But as I look back to my numbers, I guess I did get on it with the numbers I put up. I'm happy to be with the top people in I-AA on offense."
According to Robinson, setting ISU and Gateway records for receiving yards in a season and establishing the school record and tying the conference mark for receptions isn't occupying his thoughts.
"Records and all that stuff are already in the past for me. I'm not really thinking too much about it," he said. "I'm still kind of upset about us not making the playoffs."
There's always next year, and ISU can't help but be thrilled Robinson will once again be part of the effort.
By Bryan Bloodworth
NORMAL - Greg Dilligard and Dana Ford nearly doubled their pleasure Tuesday night at Redbird Arena.
The two turned in career-high scoring performances and came close to double figures in rebounding to lead Illinois State's basketball team to a 62-50 nonconference victory over Grambling State before 5,149 people.
Dilligard led the charge with 18 points and nine rebounds, while Dana Ford added 16 points and seven rebounds as ISU moved its record to 3-1. The loss was the first for Grambling State in three games.
Dana Ford scored 12 of his points in the second half after Grambling had reduced a 10-point halftime deficit to 28-26 by the 17:16 mark on a three-point play by Brion Rush.
That's when Ford and Neil Plank took over by combining to score the Redbirds' next 16 points.
Ford stripped the ball from Grambling State's Richard Thomas and scored on a layup. Then, he hit ISU's first 3-point field goal after six misses in the first half to start a 16-2 run that produced a 44-28 lead with 9:20 remaining.
Ford scored nine points during the spurt, while Plank added seven of his 11 second-half points.
"We started the second half sluggish and I took it upon myself to make something happen," said Ford, who made 5 of 7 shots from the field in the second half after going 3 for his first 8. "When they started pressing us, we kind of got back on our heels.
"Our offense was stagnant, so I just tried to get us over the hump. Today we needed an offensive spark and I kind of provided that."
ISU coach Porter Moser called a timeout after Grambling outscored his team, 9-2, to start the second half.
"We were real soft, so I got in them to wake them up," said Moser of the timeout conversation. "I got into Neil about as good as I've gotten into him in a long, long time and I was happy the way he responded.
"Neil has been a guy who's been playing really solid and really consistent. He was doing a little bit of everything. But for the first 25 minutes tonight, he was just kind of going through the motions. I got into him and he came back and made some big plays to help us win this game."
Dilligard scored six of ISU's first 10 points of the game off assists from Khalif Ford. Grambling had a 14-12 lead when Dilligard made a rebound basket and hit a 15-foot jump shot at the 9:29 mark to start a 14-2 run that produced a 26-16 halftime advantage.
"We knew we had the size advantage inside, so we tried to use it to the best of our ability," said Dilligard, who scored 12 points and handled six rebounds in the first half.
"Greg Dilligard played with a ton of energy," added Moser. "He and Dana were the keys to the game. We also got good minutes from Nedu (Onyeuku) and a couple of solid minutes from Travis Wallace."
Wallace, a senior walk-on, supplied three important minutes in the second half at point guard. He spelled Plank, who was forced to play the point when Khalif Ford went to the bench for eight minutes with three fouls.
ISU limited the Tigers to only one basket in the final 10:43 of the first half on 12 shots and 23 percent shooting from the field. Grambling State ended making 36.8 percent of its shots, while ISU shot an even 50 percent after making 63 percent in the second half.
"We didn't shoot the ball well in the first half and Illinois State's defense had something to do with that," said Grambling State coach Larry Wright, whose team's next four games are at Dayton, Texas A&M, Minnesota and TCU.
"We shot the ball a little better in the second half, but they still played good defense," added Wright. "They were bigger than us inside and we couldn't challenge them inside like we needed to do to win the game. We needed to score points in the paint."
ISU won the rebounding battle, 36-31, but had 21 turnovers with 11 in the second half.
"There were a lot of ups and downs in this game," said Moser. "There were a lot of positives and a lot of things we have to work on. But I'm excited we found a way to win.
"We had some turnovers where we were really trying to push the ball. We want to run. Now we have to get better in decision-making. I can live with the aggressive turnovers more than I can somebody being soft and just having the ball taken from them.
"We were aggressive attacking the press when Khalif was in there. That stretch where he was out, we quit attacking the press. We entered the ball and just held it. We didn't have guys cutting."
Khalif Ford had a game-high five assists. Anthony Williams led Grambling State with 15 points, Andre Rattliff had 13 points and Brion Rush added 11 points and 10 rebounds.
Vandello and Kruse
ISU starting freshman forward Mike Vandello left the game with a high ankle sprain midway through the first half. The 6-foot-7 Vandello spent the rest of the game on the bench with ice on his left ankle. He walked off the court under his own power after the game. The injury will be re-evaluated today.
Meanwhile, junior college reserve forward Mark Kruse spent the game on the bench in street clothes. Kruse, who didn't practice Monday, was tested for strep throat Tuesday. The test was negative.
Neal Cotts Day
Former ISU standout pitcher Neal Cotts, who helped the Chicago White Sox to the World Series championship as a relief pitcher, will be honored Saturday at the Redbirds' nonconference basketball game against Wisconsin-Green Bay at Redbird Arena. Game time is 4:05 p.m.
Cotts will sign special commemorative posters, which will be available only at the game, for $5 with all proceeds going to Special Olympics. Cotts will sign the posters, provided by ISU and The Pantagraph, for one hour following the game.