Normal, Ill.

In a perfect world for Illinois State, Tre Roberson would somehow have discovered a year of COVID-19 eligibility on Saturday and played against North Dakota State. The struggle at quarterback for the Redbirds has been real.

Against the best defense in the FCS, it got really real.

North Dakota State threw a shutout, an effort that was dang near a no-hitter in a 20-0 victory over ISU. Illinois State turned back the clock for its 100th year celebration of homecoming this weekend with a throwback logo on its helmets and an offense that was stuck in a previous century.

Linebacker Jasir Cox, defensive lineman Eli Mostart and their defensive teammates made sure of it. The senior Cox picked off the first two passes of his career and NDSU held the Redbirds to 99 total yards.

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More from North Dakota State's victory over Illinois State:

It was as if the ISU offense was wearing leather helmets.

“I knew our offense was leaning on us today,” Cox said, “and as a defense we dialed down and we felt like we could help out the offense. Like coach said, we’re just trying to help each other.”

The head coach, Matt Entz, couldn’t have been happier with that side of the ball. For the second time in three games, the Bison defense didn’t allow an opponent inside the 20-yard line. The farthest the Redbirds got was the NDSU 29-yard line late in the first half and that didn’t end well for the home team with a fourth-down quarterback sack.

Two weeks ago, the University of North Dakota didn’t get inside the 20.

“That’s a unique stat, I haven’t really thought about that,” Entz said. “It’s probably more unique in this day and age of college football.”

When the 49-year old Entz played college ball, if a team didn’t give up more than 13 points, there was probably a 90% chance of winning. That is his statistic.

“That number is now 21 points on how college football has grown and the tempo of it all,” Entz said. “For us to keep teams out of the red zone, that’s something to be excited about.”

There hasn’t been much excitement at quarterback in Normal since the days of Roberson, the last dynamic QB to wear a Redbird uniform. He led his team to the 2014 national title game and a deep run in the ‘15 playoffs. Replacing him hasn’t been easy.

The low point has been in the last two seasons, although last spring wasn’t much of a year for the Redbirds since they opted out after four games.

North Dakota State's Eli Mostaert pressures Southern Illinois quarterback Bryce Jefferson at Hancock Stadium in Normal, Ill., on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. David Samson / The Forum
North Dakota State's Eli Mostaert pressures Southern Illinois quarterback Bryce Jefferson at Hancock Stadium in Normal, Ill., on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. David Samson / The Forum

“Offensively we had opportunities in the first half with good field position and didn’t take advantage of it,” said ISU head coach Brock Spack. “We battled field position in the second half. We didn’t play great offense. We didn’t throw the ball well today. We don’t want to point fingers, that’s not what we do. We’ll circle the wagons and go back to work.”

Jefferson left after three quarters, going 3 of 13 passing for 28 yards and an interception, but returned late in the game. He finished 4 of 18. In three games against NDSU, he was 16 of 52 (31%) with three picks and one touchdown. Tough to snap a 10-game series losing streak against the Bison with those numbers.

That’s not to diminish what the NDSU defense did to him on Saturday. Mostaert could have cooked a five-course meal since he was in Jefferson’s kitchen so often. It reached a point where Jefferson appeared to be looking more for Bison defensive linemen than he was his own receivers.

Mostaert had three sacks in the first half. NDSU finished with five. That doesn’t include Jefferson running for his life half the time.

“It was a good afternoon for us,” Mostaert said.

Here’s the scary part of it: the Bison did it without its two starting defensive ends and top reserve. Brayden Thomas (elbow) and Tony Pierce (hamstring) warmed up before the ISU game but were held out.

The Redbirds averaged 2.0 yards per rushing attempt. They had the ball for only 22:48 of a 60-minute game. The 12,416 fans will most likely be its best crowd of the season and they rarely had a chance to cheer.

Fans were given white commemorative towels with the old school logo and they were hardly noticeable in the second half. By then, the Bison defense had long taken the home crowd out of the game.

Here’s the other scary part: NDSU played it basic on defense, not using many exotic blitzes or looks.

“We brought a few pressures, but we didn’t bring many,” Entz said.

North Dakota State's Jasir Cox sprints through the Southern Illinois offense as he celebrates an interception at Hancock Stadium in Normal, Ill., on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. David Samson / The Forum
North Dakota State's Jasir Cox sprints through the Southern Illinois offense as he celebrates an interception at Hancock Stadium in Normal, Ill., on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. David Samson / The Forum