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[2023] Illinois State Looks to Exorcise Last Year’s Demons Against Connor’s Eagles

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            If you’re wondering how Illinois State players felt about their second win of the season last week against UC Davis, you’d be hard pressed to find any thing quotable. Coach VerifiedThing said “the team played well, we’re on to the next one” and left it at that. Quarterback Devon Wardwell was asked about his 25/29 performance, and all he said was “I’m thinking about EWU now.” Safety Todd Werner shot down all reporters by repeating the same phrase: “We’re focused on the Eastern Washington game now.”

            All of the players and coaches on this team have it built into their brain that the past is the past and that all focus needs to be on the next game. Until that clock reads all zeroes, ISU will be focused on their current opponent and they won’t think about how they got there. And that type of thinking is important for their next opponent, the Eastern Washington Eagles, who beat the Redbirds twice last year including their Quarterfinal round matchup. Sammy Connor has lit up every FCS team he’s faced, and he seems to reach another level against the Redbirds. He has gone a combined 64/101 for 747 yards and 9 touchdowns with 1 interception in 2 games. One of those games was 39 degrees and raining. It’s safe to say that Connor can sling it with the best of them, and he definitely deserved his Player of the Year award last year.

            But that was last year, and everybody in the clubhouse isn’t talking about what he did last year. They’re focused on beating him this year, with the advantage of playing at home and not on, as Coach puts it, “that God-forsaken ugly ass red turf.” Another advantage for the Redbirds is that Connor’s #1 option Percy Brown has graduated. Granted, Nicholas Murphy is more than capable of being the new #1 guy (he lit up ISU with 19 catches for 225 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2 games last year), but after that are a few unknowns. The Eagles don’t have a running game, and one-dimensional teams are usually easier to stop the more you play them. This year EWU is 1-1 with their only loss being against FBS Memphis, so take that with a grain of salt. But there’s a lot to get from their week 1 win over Florida A&M. For starters, Connor was “limited” to 275 passing yards with 3 touchdowns and 1 interception. The Eagles were losing that game 14-10 heading into the 4th before they finally woke up and were able to put the game away with two early touchdown throws by Connor. It’s tough to judge a team after one game, but their offense still looked like a shell of its former self against the Rattlers.

            And on the other side of the ball, the Redbirds look pretty damn good. Even though nobody on the team wants to reminisce about their first 2 games, they’ve been one of the most impressive teams in the FCS so far. In 2 games against Montana and UC Davis, ISU has outscored them 86-27 and outgained both teams 901-573. They’ve only allowed 47 rushing yards total, but that’s mostly because they put both teams in holes early and forced them to throw more. Their game against Felix Luck’s UC Davis was a good warmup for the passing defense as Luck had been the most talented Quarterback that entered the transfer portal. The former TCU product went 31/52 for 334 yards, which is about what Connor produces against the Redbirds. However, he only threw 1 touchdown and threw an interception as well, and that’s what ISU’s defense is hoping to do against Connor. The fact of the matter is that Connor is going to throw 50 times and complete about 30 of them. The important thing is to prevent the receivers from getting into the endzone and limiting their YAC, and to force him to make mistakes.

           Given how close ISU was to beating EWU in the QF matchup and seeing how strong the team has looked on offense and defense so far, it looks like the Redbirds are in their best position yet to finally beat the Eagles and Sammy Connor. But come Monday, whether it’s victory or defeat, expect the team to say nothing but “we’re on to the next one.”

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