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2022 football season preview: Illinois State Redbirds

Wisconsin’s first opponent of the season is the FCS Redbirds. This one should be easy...right?

NCAA Football: Illinois State at Colorado State
Illinois State head coach Brock Spack in 2018.
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

It is time for the 2022 Wisconsin Badgers football season preview extravaganza to begin! Over the next (almost) two months we will be preparing you for the upcoming football season. We’ve got previews of every team on Wisconsin’s schedule, we’ve got positional breakdowns of each group at UW, we’ll have predictions for the full conference, rankings of the top units in the Big Ten as well as a couple of larger features that we think are interesting.

First up, Wisconsin’s opening weekend opponent, Illinois State.

Team: Illinois State Redbirds
Head coach: Brock Spack, 14th season, 89-60
2021 record: 4-7 overall, 2-6 Missouri Valley Football Conference
Game info: Saturday, Sept. 3, 6:00 p.m. CT, FS1, Camp Randall Stadium

Top returning players

  • Sophomore, RB Cole Mueller, 189 attempts for 977 yards (5.2 ypc), six touchdowns, 88.8 ypg
  • Senior, TE Bryson Deming, 14 catches for 184 yards (13.1 ypc), two touchdowns, 18.4 ypg
  • Sophomore, QB Jackson Waring, 71-of-130 (54.6%) passing for 879 yards, six touchdowns, four interceptions, two rushing touchdowns, 109.9 ypg
  • Senior, LB Zeke Vandenburgh, 73 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, eight QB hurries, two passes broken up
  • Junior, LB Kenton Wilhoit, 67 tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss, two QB hurries, two passes broken up, two interceptions

Top newcomers

  • Junior, QB Zack Annexstad, transfer from Minnesota, started 2018 season at QB as a walk-on, believed to be the second walk-on true freshman QB to ever start a season opener (Baker Mayfield is the other)
  • Freshman, DB Dallas Brown, Fairview Heights, Ill., rated as a 3-star prospect and the no. 2035 player in the nation by On3 Sports
  • Junior, DB Larry Tracy III, transfer from Indiana, appeared in 14 games for the Hoosiers, mostly on special teams

Top newcomers from Wisconsin!

  • Freshman, DL Greg Galloway, Oconomowoc
  • Freshman, OL Jordan Greuel, Greendale
  • Freshman, FB Cal Martine, Appleton
  • Freshman, OL Landon Woodard, Waukesha...I know nothing about these players, but as they are all offensive/defensive lineman (and a fullback!) from Wisconsin, I’m assuming they’ll be good players for ISU.

2021 season review

The Redbirds didn’t have a great season last year, to put it bluntly. After starting off the year 2-1 in non-conference play, including a thrilling win over rival Eastern Illinois to make head coach Brock Spack the winningest coach in school history, the Redbirds fell flat in MVFC play.

A brutal start to the conference season saw ISU take on three ranked opponents, losing to No. 7 Southern Illinois, No. 16 Missouri State and getting shut out by No. 3 North Dakota State. The Redbirds then scored a surprise upset victory over No. 15 South Dakota on the road before falling to a bad Western Illinois team the following week.

Their strange, up-and-down season continued with an OT win over No. 13 Northern Iowa and then scoring a combined 17 points in the final two weeks of the season, both losses.

The Redbirds did not have consistent quarterback play all season, but Cole Mueller, in his first action for ISU after redshirting in 2019 and missing the 2020/spring 2021 FCS season with an injury, still managed to grind out nearly 1,000 yards on the ground.

ISU’s defense was actually fairly solid, considering they were on the field more often than not. While they gave up 351.3 yards per game, they only allowed 22.4 points per game (No. 28 in the nation). They were also still above average (in the good way for a defense) in the amount of yards given up. Their red-zone scoring percentage of 69% was seventh best in the nation, proving that their bend but don’t break strategy worked well. The offense, on the other hand, scored a putrid 18.4 ppg which was tied for No. 106 in the country and I, quite frankly, don’t want to talk about them anymore.

Key stat: If your defense was able to get Illinois State to third down, they were likely to get off the field. Last year, ISU converted only 27.4% of their third down attempts which was good for No. 115 (out of 123 teams) in all of FCS.

2022 season preview

While there isn’t nearly as much season preview info on FCS teams as there is on FBS teams, what I’ve read so far isn’t super positive for the Redbirds. None of the preseason top-25 polls even have them in the “receiving votes” category and this preseason MVFC all-conference team includes zero (0) ISU players.

ISU returns their leading rusher, leading passer and three of their top four leading receivers from last season...but none of the passing game stats are anything to write home about. Enter former Minnesota Golden Gophers QB, Zach Annexstad. The transfer signal caller was named the Offensive Newcomer of the Year by the coaching staff after spring practice and he should be given every chance to win the starting job.

As far as I can tell, there are five offensive linemen returning who started games last season. Peyton Asche, a 6-foot-8 and 315 pound junior, appears to have gotten hurt during their second game and missed the rest of the season. While tape of Asche’s game is not something I’ve seen, he has the right frame to be a talented offensive lineman so let’s stay positive and say he’ll be a difference maker for the offense.

Running behind the line will be Mueller, who had a solid season last year despite all of the offenses, uh, other issues. If Annexstad makes the aerial attack, at a minimum, a viable threat, Mueller should be able to rush for over 1,000 yards this year.

Minnesota v Nebraska
Annexstad hucking the rock against Nebraska in 2018.
Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

The defense was stout last season and return a veteran linebacking corps, which includes two of their top three tacklers from last year as well as their leading sack artist. Zeke Vandenburgh had 73 tackles and four sacks and will be counted on to create havoc for ISU again. The Redbirds lost some players in the secondary and on the defensive line, but have enough returning players to at least set a high floor for those units.

One new player that could help on the back end is former Central Arkansas standout DB, Deandre Lamont. He is not listed on the roster yet, but his Twitter account notes that he transferred to ISU and this article has him as one of the top FCS to FCS transfers of the offseason. Lamont has been named to the first team All-ASUN team twice and has five interceptions and 16 passes broken up in his career.


While Illinois State has a few interesting pieces on both sides of the ball, this game shouldn’t be one that Wisconsin is worried about past halftime. It is imperative that Graham Mertz has a solid outing to build some confidence and it would also be nice to get some younger players live reps in the second half. While one game does not a season make...if the Badgers struggle in the opener we could be in for a loooong year.