The BR-2 Illinois State Redbirds have a chance take the first FCS Championship in school history this weekend versus BR-1 North Dakota State, a squad that has claimed the last three FCS titles.
If anyone can knock off the mighty Bison, it’s a Redbirds team flying high after two consecutive playoff road upsets.
Illinois State knows adversity. After cruising to a 20-point win at home over Northern Iowa in the first round of the FCS playoffs, the Redbirds travelled to Eastern Washington in the second round to tackle a playoff veteran Eagles squad featuring one of the top quarterbacks in the nation, Vernon Adams Jr.
The Eagles were riding a four-game winning streak, and no opponent had tasted success on the bright red turf of Roos Field all season long.
Then again, that turf had not seen the one-two backfield tandem of Marshaun Coprich and Tre Roberson.
Illinois head coach Brock Spack said his squad was prepared to “bring the fight to the center of the ring.” Even Spack couldn’t have predicted the dominating performance by Coprich, who ran wild for 258 yards and four touchdowns. Roberson ran for 62 yards of his own and added a rushing touchdown while also tossing the rock for 206 yards and another two TDs in a wild 59-46 upset.
“We felt we were heavy punchers and they were boxers,” Spack proclaimed after the upset.
If the win over Eastern Washington was a round-for-round slugfest, then the FCS Semifinal win over New Hampshire was a furious 12th round TKO.
Down 18-6 on the road in the final quarter, Coprich and Roberson once again stole the show with their legs. Coprich scored from 2 yards out early in the fourth and Roberson dashed for the clincher from 47 yards away midway through the final quarter. They gave the ball back to the Wildcats with 21-18 on the scoreboard.
The defense held tough and when the final whistle blew, the Redbirds became just the third team in the last 37 to take a win at Cowell Stadium, AKA “The Dungeon.”
Coprich has been the heart and soul of the Illinois State offense all season. The running back — who did not receive any scholarship offers from big-time programs coming out of high school in Victorville, California — lead the FCS in rushing this season with 2,168 yards and found the end zone 27 times, also tops in the nation. He has been the model of consistency, averaging over six yards per rush on an astounding 354 carries.
Coprich — the Offensive Player of the Year in the Missouri Valley Football Conference — isn’t the only lethal weapon in the Redbirds’ backfield.
Junior quarterback Tre Roberson has piled up 868 rushing yards of his own (ninth most in the MVFC) to go along with 10 rushing touchdowns. The signal caller has also thrown for over 3,000 yards (second most in the MVFC) and 27 touchdowns this season. His favorite target, Cameron Meredith, has hauled in 65 balls for 1,047 yards and nine scores.
The incredible combination of Coprich and Roberson is a huge reason Illinois State averaged 39 points per game and an astounding 466 yards per contest. The Redbirds were especially adept at jumping out to quick leads, outscoring opponents 130 to 34 in the first quarter.
With so much firepower on the offensive side of the ball, shouldn’t Illinois State be feeling supremely confident going into their first ever FCS Championship game?
The biggest concern for the Redbirds is the defensive secondary. Opposing quarterbacks threw for over 3,100 yards and 18 touchdowns this year. Although the semifinal win over Eastern Washington was impressive the defense still gave up 425 yards passing and 46 points. Eastern Washington was the second best passing team in the nation this season though, and overall passing defense numbers will get inflated when opposing offenses are slinging the ball around to try and catch up. This is part of the reason for the passing defense appearing to be a weak point.
In any case, defensive coordinator Spence Nowinsky will have to have his boys ready for North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz. He completed nearly 64 percent of his passes this season, and while he threw for a modest 2,874 yards, he found the end zone 24 times.
The strength of Nowinsky’s defense was run stopping. They held their average opponent to just 115 yards per game (16th in the FCS) and just 3.3 yards per carry (17th). They will have to be even better on Saturday when they face running back Jack Crockett. The senior ran for 1,953 yards and 20 touchdowns in the regular season and he’s been a beast in the playoffs so far, racking up 495 yards in NDSU’s three wins.
Illinois State has every chance to dethrone the kings this weekend in Frisco, Texas. If Coprich and Roberson can churn out first downs, control the clock, and convert key third downs, Wentz’s opportunities to exploit the Redbirds’ secondary should be limited.
After the semifinal road win over New Hampshire, Spack said of his team, “A great part of our team is how we persevere.”
The ultimate act of perseverance awaits the Illinois State Redbirds this Saturday.