(STATS) - Though it has highly anticipated trip to Fargo looming on Oct. 1, Illinois State certainly can't afford to look ahead entering a matchup with an Indiana State team led by one of the MVFC's hottest quarterbacks.
After a rare home loss dropped them from fifth to ninth in the STATS FCS Top 25, the Redbirds hit the road hoping to bounce back Saturday when they try to slow Isaac Harker and the Sycamores in the conference opener for both clubs.
Illinois State (2-1) was riding high following a 9-7 victory at Northwestern on Sept. 10 before making some crucial miscues at the wrong times in last Saturday's 24-21 loss to rival Eastern Illinois. The Redbirds committed three turnovers before a furious late rally fell short as they lost for only the second time in their last 22 contests in Normal.
"It was a very eye-opening experience for our players, because really to be honest with you, we played hard - particularly defensively," Illinois State coach Brock Spack said. "We moved the ball. We had (443) total yards of offense - almost 200 more than they did, but there are a couple statistics that are very telling. One is three turnovers."
Spack's squad, which has earned a share of the last two MVFC titles with North Dakota State, will have a titanic showdown against the top-ranked Bison on Oct. 1. First, the Redbirds will have to figure out a way to contain Harker, the MVFC offensive player of the week. He leads an Indiana State offense that has put up at least 27 points in all three contests.
Harker ranks second in the MVFC with 284.7 passing yards per game after completing 22 of 36 attempts for 302 yards and three touchdowns in the Sycamores' 27-24 come-from-behind win over Southeast Missouri last weekend. The sophomore was 11 of 16 for 126 yards and two scores in the fourth quarter and hit Miles Thompson for the go-ahead TD with 10.8 seconds remaining.
"We found a lot of positives about Isaac in how he handles stress and pressure," Indiana State coach Mike Sanford said. "Our team has a ton of confidence in him and that's going to be big moving forward."
Robert Tonyan, a 6-foot-6 receiver, poses the biggest matchup problem for the Redbirds. He finished with seven catches for 90 yards and a touchdown against SEMO, giving him a conference-best 22 receptions for 272 yards and four scores overall. Tonyan finished with nine catches for 117 yards and three TDs in a 27-24 loss at Illinois State last October.
The Redbirds, however, have been the MVFC's best defensive team early on, ranking first in sacks (10), total defense (223.3 yards allowed per game) and opponent passer rating (88.3). They haven't been nearly as sharp offensively, totaling just 30 points since a 50-13 win over Valparaiso in the opener.
Jake Kolbe has thrown for 562 yards in the two games, but he threw a big interception against the Panthers to raise his total to four. Anthony Warrum (16 catches, 252 yards) and Spencer Schnell (19 receptions, 150 yards) have been the top targets in the passing game.
They'll try to find the holes in a defense that ranks eighth in the 10-team league with 253.3 passing yards allowed per game.
"Our defense improved (last week), but it's still not where I expect it to be as the season progresses," Sanford said. "We have quite a few young players in the secondary."
The Sycamores (2-1), who couldn't hold on to a 24-9 halftime lead over the Redbirds last season, have had all kinds of trouble in this series, dropping 16 of the past 18 meetings.
MORE FBS TESTS=
So far, eight FCS programs have defeated FBS teams this season. Thirteenth-ranked Western Illinois (2-0) and Missouri State (2-0) hope to join that list in their nonconference finales this weekend.
The Leathernecks will try to build on their strong start when they take on former rival Northern Illinois for the first time since 2009. The Huskies look to avoid their first 0-4 start since 1999, while Western aims to snap a 15-game skid versus FBS opponents.
Missouri State, which went 1-10 last season, seeks its first 3-0 start since 2004 as it travels to Kansas State on Saturday night. The Bears, though, have lost 30 straight versus FBS foes dating to a 31-24 win over UNLV in 1990. The Wildcats (1-1) have won three all-time meetings - all in Manhattan - by a combined 160-43, including a 51-9 rout in the most recent matchup in 2012.