The game will be the 17th in the series between the two schools.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Senior defensive lineman Colton Underwood is one of the best defenders in all of FCS football. The 2012 First-Team All-American and Buck Buchanan Award leads the way for the Redbird defense and will look to improve on his stellar numbers from last season. The Washington, Ill., native led the Missouri Valley Football Conference in sacks (10.5) and tackles-for-loss (19.5) in 2012 and ranked second on the team with 95 total tackles. He also finished the season tied for No. 12 in the FCS in TFLs and No. 13 in the country in sacks per game.
Coming off a memorable season that featured a win over an FBS foe for the first time in over 20 years and run to the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs, Illinois State will open the 2013 campaign on the road against Mid-American Conference foe Ball State Thursday night. The game will be streamed live on the Internet on ESPN3.
Illinois State and Ball State will renew a series that dates back to 1957. The two teams have not played since 1993, when the Cardinals came away with a 45-30 win over the Redbirds in Muncie, Ind. Ball State leads the overall series 11-5, and has won seven-straight games overall.
Illinois State: Brock Spack (Purdue, 1983) is in his fifth season as the head coach at Illinois State (28-18). Spack led the Redbirds to their first playoff victory since 2006, just the third nine-win season in school history and was a finalist for the 2012 Eddie Robinson Award.
Ball State: Pete Lembo (Georgetown, 1992) is in his third year at the helm of the Ball State football program (15-10). Lembo led the Cardinals to a 9-4 overall record and a 6-2 Mid-American Conference mark in his second season in 2012 and an appearance in the the 2012 Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl St. Petersburg.
THE #REDBIRDFOOTBALL PROGRAM
- Four FCS playoff appearances (1998, 1999, 2006, 2012)
- Three-time FCS quarterfinalists (1999, 2006, 2012)
- Four-straight winning seasons for the first time since the 1940's
- Team is 17-6 at home under Spack's guidance.
- ISU was 6-1 on the road last year, with a perfect 5-0 finish in the regular season.
- The team set a program-record cumulative GPA in the Spring 2013 semester.
THIS WEEK'S OPPONENT
- Ball State University is located in Muncie, Ind., and has an enrollment of 17,351 students. The Cardinals are members of the Mid-American Conference (West Division) and play their home games at Scheumann Stadium (22,500).
- Ball State finished the 2012 season with a 9-4 overall record and a 6-2 Mid-American Conference mark. The team's nine wins tied for third-most in a single season in school history, while the six MAC wins marked the second-highest total since 1996.
- BSU ended its season at the 2012 Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla., which marked just the eighth bowl appearance in school history.
- Ball State was picked to finish third in the Mid-American Conference West Division in the league's media preseason poll announced at the league's Football Media Day at Ford Field in Detroit.
- Several Ball State players are on national watch lists heading into the 2013 season.
- Senior quarterback Keith Wenning has been named to a pair of national watch lists. He has been named to the Davey O'Brien National Quarterback Award Watch List and named to the Maxwell Award Preseason Watch List, which goes to the nation's college football player of the year.
- Wenning's favorite target last year, senior wide receiver Willie Snead, has been named to the Biletnikoff Award Preseason Watch List, which recognizes the outstanding receiver in college football.
- Junior running Jahwan Edwards is a nominee for the Doak Walker Award, which is presented annually to the nation's top collegiate running back.
- Senior tight end Zane Fakes was named to the John Mackey Award Preseason Watch List, which is given annually to the most outstanding collegiate tight end.
- Senior Jamill Smith was selected to the 2013 Paul Hornung Award Preseason Watch List, which is presented is given annually to the most versatile player in major college football.
In the last four seasons, the Redbirds have gone 2-2 in season openers under head coach Brock Spack. Both of those losses came on the road to longtime foe Eastern Illinois. However, the Redbirds have had better luck in home openers, winning the first game at Hancock Stadium in each of the last four seasons.
One of the Illinois State football team's main goals in 2012 was to be road warriors and as many games on the road as possible. The Redbirds succeeded in that goal, going 5-0 during the regular season and picking up a win in the second round of the FCS playoffs at Appalachian State in overtime. However, that record received its only blemish, when Illinois State lost in the quarterfinals on the road at Eastern Washington. The team has set the same goal for 2013, and that all starts with a tough game tonight against Ball State.
RETURN OF THE MAC
The Redbirds have played over 150 games against current members of the Mid-American Conference in school history, with an overall record of 47-89-15 in those contests. ISU has faced off the most times against in-state rival and 2012 MAC Champion Northern Illinois, posting a 22-25-9 record against the Huskies. Prior to ISU's win at Eastern Michigan in week two last season, the Redbirds had not played a MAC opponent since 2001, when ISU dropped a 48-7 decision to Western Michigan. When ISU opens the season at Ball State, it will mark the first time since the 2000 and 2001 seasons that the Redbirds have played a MAC opponent in back-to-back seasons.
THE MAN FOR THE JOB
When Illinois State head coach Brock Spack was hired prior to the 2009 season, he referred to the Redbird football program as a sleeping giant that needed to be woken up. With four-straight winning seasons and a FCS quarterfinal appearance in 2012, the giant is stirring. Spack became the first head coach to guide his team to four-consecutive winning seasons since Edwin Struck led the Redbirds to six-straight winning seasons from 1945-1950. After leading his team to an 9-4 record and the team's first playoff appearance since 2006, Spack was named one of 20 finalists for the 2012 Eddie Robinson Award by The Sports Network.
UNDERWOOD ON THE NATIONAL RADAR
Last year, defensive end Colton Underwood was named a First-Team All-America selection by The Walter Camp Football Foundation, The Associated Press and The Sports Network and was listed as a College Sporting News 2012 Fabulous Fifty FCS All-America Team member. He finished sixth overall in the voting for the 2012 Buck Buchanan Award and was honored with the 2012 College Football Performance Awards (CFPA) FCS Defensive End Award, after leading the MVFC in sacks (10.5) and tackles-for-loss (19.5). It comes as no surprise to just about anyone that Underwood found himself on the Buchanan Award Preseason Watch List for 2013 and on every preseason All-America team.
The 2012 Redbird football team made a strong run in the FCS playoffs, after finishing third in the Missouri Valley Football Conference regular-season standings and earning an at-large selection. With the loss of 12 starters and a young squad coming back, the Redbirds were picked fourth in 2013 MVFC Preseason Poll. The fourth-place selection is very familiar for ISU, as the 'Birds were picked in the same spot prior to the 2012 campaign.
After a standout season in 2012, Colton Underwood earned his way onto just about every All-America list. He found himself back on several of those lists this preseason, but he was joined by a pair of his teammates as well. Senior fullback Jordan Neukirch was selected to the second team and junior longsnapper Chris Highland was picked as a third-team selection on the PhilSteele.com Preseason All-American Team along with Underwood. Both Neukirch and Highland were third-team preseason All-American selections by The Sports Network as well.
FOUR 'BIRDS LAND ON THE PRESEASON MVFC TEAM
Illinois State also received four 2013 MVFC Preseason Team selections in the annual vote. Senior defensive end and 2013 Buck Buchanan Award Watch List member Colton Underwood and 2012 First-Team MVFC fullback Jordan Neukirch were among 28 MVFC student-athletes listed on the preseason lineup. In addition, senior offensive tackle Josh Aladenoye and junior offensive tackle Jermaine Barton were tabbed as preseason honorable mention selections, signifying they received at least five votes on the ballots submitted.
The talk throughout most of the offseason and certainly through fall camp was about who would take over the role as the team's starting quarterback. The spot vacated by 2012 MVFC Offensive Player of the Year and MVFC all-time leading passer Matt Brown is big, but three talented signal-callers competed neck-and-neck for the opportunity. After many practices and workouts, the coaching staff selected Iowa State transfer Jared Barnett for the job. Over the past two seasons, Barnett started nine games for the Cyclones, leading them to victories over No. 19 Texas Tech, Kansas and No. 2 Oklahoma State.
'BIRDS FLYING HIGH IN POLLS
For the second-straight season, the Redbirds found themselves nationally ranked in the 2013 preseason polls. After finishing the season ranked in both The Sports Network and FCS Coaches Polls in 2012, ISU was ranked No. 13 by The Sports Network in its preseason FCS Top 25 poll and No. 10 in the FCS Coaches Poll. The TSN and FCS Coaches Poll are considered the most respected polls in FCS football.
Most teams don't look forward to playing extra downs in overtime, but the Redbirds came out on top of both of their overtime contests in 2012. ISU needed two overtime periods to put away Ohio Valley Conference champion and FCS playoff participant Eastern Illinois in week three by a score of 54-51. It was a bit easier against No. Appalachian State (Dec. 1), as the Redbirds needed just one play in overtime and took advantage of a blocked PAT attempt to come away with the victory. Overall, the Redbirds are 7-5 in overtime contests dating back to 1995.
MAKING AN IMMEDIATE IMPACT
Since the arrival of head coach Brock Spack in 2009, the Redbirds have had at least four players each year that were honored for their first-year efforts in the program as a member of the Missouri Valley Football Conference All-Newcomer Team. Last season, that trend continued as ISU had five players named to the annual list that recognizes the achievements of freshmen, redshirt freshmen and first-year transfers. Offensive tackles Josh Aladenoye and Jermaine Barton, wide receiver Phil Dudley, linebacker Alex Donnelly and strong safety Ezra Thompson were each recognized by the voters for their play on the field and the five selections were the most among league schools in 2012. Each return in 2013 and will be expected to be big factors on both sides of the football.
TO BE THE BEST, YOU HAVE TO BEAT THE BEST
Last season, the Redbirds played five nationally ranked opponents including four in a row to end the year. ISU went 3-2 in those contests, with wins over No. 8 Youngstown State, No. 14 Indiana State and in the second round of the playoffs against No. 6 Appalachian State. The competition this should be just as tough, as four teams on the Redbirds' schedule appear in the preseason national rankings, including two-time defending FCS National Champion North Dakota State.
AUSSIEKER KICKS HIS WAY TO RECOGNITION
Illinois State junior placekicker Nick Aussieker has garnered pre-season several accolades, as including being named to the 2013 Fred Mitchell Outstanding Place-Kicker Award (also known as the Fred Mitchell Award) Watch List. The Watch List for the Fred Mitchell Award includes 34 Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), Division II, III, National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) and National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) collegiate place-kickers that were nominated by their colleges for excellence on the football field and in the community. Aussieker was a 2012 Fred Mitchell Award Finalist and appeared in all 13 games for the Redbirds, making 11-of-13 field goal attempts. The Wildwood, Mo., native was a perfect 4-for-4 on field goal attempts between 40-49 yards and successfully converted 46-of-49 extra point tries. He was also very involved in the community, working with his teammates as volunteers at Illinois Special Olympics and digging runs for the Humane Society of Central Illinois.
IN GOOD HANDS
Illinois State senior defensive end Colton Underwood was recognized for his tireless work in the community, in the classroom and on the field, when the Allstate Insurance Company and the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) selected him as one of a record 150 nominees for the 2013 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team®. As one of college football's most prestigious off-the-field honors, the award recognizes a select group of college football players committed to making a difference in their communities. Since 1992, the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team® has shown a spotlight on the countless "good works" and remarkable stories of service by student-athletes at all levels of college football competition. Award recipients represent the sport's finest in terms of character and leadership in the community.
BANKS AWARDED STRUCK/HELDT ENDOWED SCHOLARSHIP
Illinois State junior Mike Banks was awareded the Ed Struck and Carl D. Heldt Endowed Football Scholarship for the 2013-14 academic year by head coach Brock Spack, for his dedication on the field of play and in the classroom. The Ed Struck and Carl D. Heldt Endowed Football Scholarship was established and first awarded in 2012. Due to the impact of these two coaches, a group of former ISU players have established the scholarship to be awarded annually. Banks was named All-Missouri Valley Football Conference Honorable Mention for his efforts during the 2012 season. The University Park, Ill., native started all 13 games at cornerback and led the team with 10 pass breakups. He tallied 55 tackles, added two interceptions and registered two quarterback hurries. Banks is a health education major and has a 3.24 cumulative grade-point average.
HIGHLAND HONORED WITH RUEBUSH ENDOWED SCHOLARSHIP
Junior Chris Highland was honored with the W.E. Ruebush Endowed Scholarship for the 2013-14 academic year. The W.E. Ruebush (REW-bush) Endowed Scholarship is presented annually to a Redbird football player who carries at least a 3.2 cumulative grade-point average (GPA). Highland was named to The Sports Network 2013 FCS Preseason All-America Third Team and heads into his second season as the Redbirds' primary longsnapper. The Normal, Ill., native and Bloomington Central Catholic product was one of six Redbird players who posted a 4.0 grade point average (GPA) during the Spring 2013 semester and maintains a cumulative GPA of 3.46 in broadcast journalism.
AN INFLUX OF TALENT
Since 1993, when the NCAA rules changed to allow FBS transfers immediate eligibility at the FCS level, Illinois State has had 82 players transfer from FBS schools. ISU's FBS transfers on this year's roster include: Josh Aladenoye (Oklahoma), Brian Athey (West Virginia), Jared Barnett (Iowa State), Jermaine Barton (Miami), Dominic Clarke (Ohio State), Milton Colbert (Michigan State), Phil Dudley (Ball State), Mike Liedtke (Western Michigan), Matt Meyers (Iowa), Jonathon Miller (Oklahoma), David Perkins (Ohio State), Adam Pittser (Wyoming), Adam Rebholz (Illinois), Albert Sparks (Buffalo), and Ezra Thompson (Colorado State).