Wisconsin football opens its season on Saturday against the Illinois State Redbirds. If you’re like me, you probably don’t know a ton about the Illinois State Redbirds. So, in order to get an idea of who they are and what they do we enlisted the help of Jared Miller. Jared does wonderful work covering FCS football over at Underdog Dynasty and was able to give us an idea of just who the Illinois State Redbirds are.
Wisconsin opens their season against FCS Illinois State. I am guessing not a lot of Badger fans know too much about Illinois State’s football program. Could you tell us a little bit about who the Redbirds are?
Illinois State is a tough team to peg when you’re talking about where they land in the FCS landscape. They’re not a “have” but you certainly can’t call them a “have not” either. They have one of the more experienced coaches in the subdivision with Brock Spack who’s now in his 14th year with the team. Spack’s a guy that knows what it takes to win because he’s been to the mountaintop with this team about ten years ago. They came up just short in that title game and ever since then really haven’t done a lot on the national scene so they’re probably not who you think of first when you think of the FCS.
In fact, it’s probably their Missouri Valley Conference mates North Dakota State and South Dakota State that come to mind first at the mention of the FCS. Well, Illinois State plays those guys almost every year so they’re used to stout competition and FBS games. They’re a team that strikes me as a true middle-of-the-road bunch if you’re looking at the big picture of their history. They have a healthy mix of playoff trips and down years to their name but they have yet to really have that “wow” season.
Which FBS team do you think Illinois State best compares to help us understand who Illinois State is?
I’d say Missouri is a pretty fair parallel to draw. You have a team that plays in one of the best conferences the sport has to offer but they often get lost in the shuffle because they aren’t one of those top two or three programs that give the conference its prowess. Think of how Mizzou always, even in their best seasons, seems to be chasing the likes of Alabama and Georgia in the SEC. That’s what you have with the Redbirds in that crowded MVC with North Dakota State and South Dakota State.
Even when Mizzou had that impressive 2014 campaign, it was ‘Bama that sent them packing in the SEC Championship. Illinois State played for an FCS championship that same year and reached the quarterfinals again just a couple of seasons ago (2019). Who did they run into both times that ended their run? NDSU. They can’t seem to get out of that big shadow and hence are always looked at as “little brothers”. Last year they, like Missouri, didn’t quite have a winning record but this team has seen success and that success is recent enough that the fanbase desperately wants a taste again.
Last season Illinois State finished 4-7. As an outsider, that’s tough to gauge as they knocked off Northern Iowa and South Dakota who were ranked in the top 15, but they also lost to teams like Western Illinois. What led to such an up-and-down season for the Redbirds?
Illinois State was the king of one-score losses last year at the end of the season so that 4-7 record is a little deceptive. They were in almost every game they played, at least for a while. You can attribute that four-win record to a lot of things though.
Bad luck certainly played a hand but so did other things. ISU ranked near the bottom of the FCS in average time of possession per game (roughly 27 minutes). The defense was on the field a lot and they got gassed because of it. But that defense did other things well. The Redbirds were in the better half of FCS defenses in terms of rushing yards. Per game, the unit surrendered just 137.5 per game. All in all, they did some things well and some things not so well thus resulting in the fluctuation from week to week.
What are the key things Illinois State is looking to improve on to improve its overall record in 2022?
Third down was a major issue for ISU in 2021 on both sides of the ball. Opponents were converting nearly 50 percent of the time on third down (.465) while their own offense was only doing so at a .274 rate. That’s a recipe for disaster and that will certainly need to be better if the Redbirds want to turn this thing around.
Another problem area was the offensive line. Illinois State gave up 34 total sacks last year to opposing defenses which made for an average of over three per game. Not necessarily a winning formula either. Those are the big two things the team needs to address this season or 2022 will be much of the same.
Wisconsin fans might recognize the name of the Redbirds quarterback, Zach Annexstad, who formerly played at Minnesota and transferred in for this season. How big of a get is that for them?
Pretty much any time you have an FBS-to-FCS transfer it’s a positive, especially at the quarterback spot. Rarely does that not work out in favor of the FCS team and the player. Annexstad was a big get and the team is really excited about him.
He’s been voted as a team captain this season which says a lot about the leadership side of things. Beyond that, though, you have got a kid with good size that gets rid of the ball quickly and sees the field well. Coach Spack has lauded him since the spring really and solid QB play is something the team has been without lately. Fans ought to be excited about what he brings to the table. Is he the guy that’ll get them back to the FCS playoffs? It’s too early to tell right now. Is he a guy that could, though? Absolutely, the potential is there.
What other names should Wisconsin fans be on the lookout for Saturday evening when Illinois State takes the field?
On offense, you have to look out for running back Cole Mueller. He nearly ran for 1,000 yards last season and found the end zone six times. He can put up big individual performances too. In that loss to Western Illinois, he ran for 159 yards and three scores. So be aware of #4.
Also, keep an eye on linebacker Kenton Wilhoit. The kid is a tackling machine but he knows how to get his hands on the ball too. He’s grabbed three interceptions in his career with two coming last fall. All three of those picks he’s turned into nice, solid runbacks as well. So if you’re Wisconsin, or anyone for that matter, you have to know where Wilhoit is at all times because he’s always around and he knows how to make you pay if you aren’t careful.