In 2018, Illinois State was 5-1 and ranked No. 7 heading into an Oct. 20 matchup at No. 1 North Dakota State. The Redbirds lost 28-14 and went on to lose three of their final four games to finish 6-5 and miss the playoffs.
This year, the Redbirds were 3-1 and ranked No. 6 with No. 1 NDSU coming to town on Oct. 5. ISU lost 37-3. But the 2019 squad has responded in a different way, winning four of its last five games, including a 27-18 road win at No. 4 South Dakota State last week.
The Redbirds are currently 7-3 overall and 7-2 versus FCS opponents with two games remaining. They are ranked No. 7 in the current STATS Media Poll.
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That's the word defensive leaders Ty DeForest and Luther Kirk used when describing how this team has dealt with adversity compared to last year.
"That wasn't us," DeForest, a senior linebacker, told HERO Sports about that NDSU loss. "That got away from who we were. We pride ourselves on being able to stop the run. That game was not exactly what we were. We knew after that game that there's going to be a lot of other teams who saw that and will try to copy certain plays. We were able to hone in and fix those mistakes."
"It's maturity," he added. "We were young last year and still are young this year. We don't have a whole lot of seniors on this defense. Last year, it was maturity. When a couple of things went wrong, we let it compound. This year it's completely different. We'll take those few things in a game that we know we can get better at, we'll fix it and build on it."
DeForest and Kirk, a senior safety, lead an outstanding defensive unit that has risen to the occasion. The Redbirds lost key pass-catchers earlier this season and with that, lost some of their offensive explosion. While the offense is scoring 22.6 points per game, the defense is shutting down opponents and allowing 17.8 points per game, which ranks eighth in the FCS.
Kirk leads the Redbirds with 65 total tackles and DeForest is tied for second with 56. Both lead with their play on the field but are also perfect examples of having strong character by overcoming adversity or biding your time on the team.
Kirk was a 2018 all-Missouri Valley Football Conference First Team selection. He is playing at an even higher level in 2019, emerging as a pro prospect at 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds. Kirk just recently accepted an invite to the Shrine Bowl along with ISU running back James Robinson.
But just two years ago, Kirk stepped away from the game. He stayed in school at Illinois State but decided to leave the team.
"My body wasn't feeling that great," Kirk told HERO Sports. "And mentally, I was really defeated and wasn't where I needed to be. I wasn't seeing as much playing time as maybe I was hoping. Things weren't going too well and I came from Texas to Illinois and things were getting to me. I had to take a step back and I started to really miss it."
Kirk rejoined the team for the 2018 spring workouts and was voted a team captain, an honor he received once again this year.
"Doing something your whole life and taking that step back, you realize how big … and I already knew how big it was for me to come up to Illinois and play big-time football," he said. "But you just don't really see how big it was and the grasp it has and how much it really meant to you when you're not out there doing it anymore."
In his first season back, Kirk started all 11 games, snagged five interceptions and totaled 61 tackles.
"The biggest part of it was just my mentality going into everything," Kirk said. "Just having the confidence to go out and do it and make the plays that I knew I was capable of doing. My body was feeling a lot better. Put those two together and you get a good outcome."
For DeForest, his path to contributing as a starter was a long one. But he has no complaints. DeForest began his career at Wisconsin, where he redshirted in 2015. He transferred to ISU following that season and was a major contributor on special teams in 2016 and 2017 while earning more reps and one start at linebacker in 2017. Last year, DeForest started all 11 games at middle linebacker. He tied for third on the team with 51 tackles.
There are times when an FBS transfer arrives at an FCS program expecting to be a top player. When that doesn't happen, it can create a rift with position coaches or damage chemistry in the locker room.
But there were no worries of that with DeForest.
"Coming here the first year there were no expectations really of anything," DeForest said. "To get that opportunity to be on special teams allowed me to show the coaching staff what I'm able to do. After that, I was able to get my shot on the defense and it's worked out for me."
That it has. DeForest is a sturdy presence up the middle of the ISU defense at 6-foot and 250 pounds. He's a huge part of the Redbirds run defense that allows just 117.6 yards per game, which ranks 21st in the FCS.
Coming off of their biggest FCS win in a number of years, the Redbirds now look to finish strong, something they weren't able to do last season. ISU hosts Missouri State this weekend and travels to Youngstown State to end the regular season.
The Redbirds are favored to win both and if they do, a playoff seed should be awarded. It's something the team is aware of and what motivates them to prove this is a different team with a different mentality than 2018.
"As much as we want to sit here and say it's not about the playoff picture, at the FCS level you're playing for the postseason," DeForest said. "My first year here we were able to get to the postseason and the two since then we've missed. Not only are we trying to get back for everybody, but for our senior year. These last two weeks are huge for our season, but for the playoff picture as well."
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