Illinois State and its stable of Rockford-area stars and coaches is looking to get itself back into the FCS playoffs.
A tough 19-14 loss to No. 19-ranked Southern Illinois on Saturday night won't help, although ISU had a shot at the end zone with just under two minutes remaining but could not convert, giving SIU the slim victory on Family Weekend in Normal.
Still, the close loss showed ISU (2-2, 0-1 MVFC) what it has to work on, and it also proved that the Rockford-area contingent is providing quite a spark to this year's team.
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"This is a very hungry team, very hungry," said Brock Spack, the ISU coach since 2009. Spack was a star linebacker for Rockford East before going on to step up as a starter at Purdue. "And the guys from around that (Rockford) area are a big reason why."
ISU is next slated to hit the road for Cedar Falls, Iowa, to face Northern Iowa and Freeport natives Deion and Vance McShane. Let's take a look at how the Rockford locals are lifting this Redbirds' squad so far, and what's in store for the rest of the season:
Zeke Vandenburgh, Freeport
The sixth-year linebacker out of Freeport has taken advantage of every opportunity afforded him due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He led the Redbirds to a 35-7 win over Eastern Illinois on Sept. 17, and then earned his second straight Missouri Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Week honors the following Monday.
He didn't let up this past weekend, either. Vandenburgh set his career high with 14 tackles to go along with a sack and 3 1/2 tackles for loss against the Salukis.
"I'm really enjoying playing football right now; really enjoying it," said Vandenburgh, who is 23 years old and in his sixth year at ISU. He already has his bachelor's degree in exercise science and expects to graduate with his masters degree in sports management this coming spring.
"This has been quite a journey, and I really want to leave a legacy behind," he said. "But the biggest thing for me is, well, being a good teammate, and it's what I will leave my teammates with that the most important to me."
He has turned into quite a leader, both on the field and off it, and both verbally and by example. He leads the team with 44 tackles.
"He's just been locked in," Spack said. "I told him years ago he needed to become our leader, and he's worked on it and worked on it. He's really put an emphasis on that these days, and he's made a difference."
Back against EIU, Vandenburgh led the team with eight tackles, added a sack, three tackles-for-loss, a fumble recovery, a pass breakup that led to an interception for a touchdown, and he was credited with two quarterback hurries. On the season, Vandenburgh is averaging just over 10 tackles per game and he has hauled in six sacks and 10 tackles-for-loss.
He also tipped a pass into the air that turned into an interception returned for a touchdown, and he had a sack fumble, in which he recovered the fumble as well, back on Sept. 10, when ISU pulled in its first win of the season, 28-21 over Valparaiso.
Peyton Asche, Eastland/Pearl City
The starting right tackle tore his ACL in the second game last season, but he battled back and has started all four games at right tackle for ISU this season. The 6-foot-8, 305 pounder out of Eastland/Pearl City has been a powerful weapon in the run game, and has improved his pass blocking a ton.
"I am just grateful to be out there playing football again, for sure," Asche, a fifth-year sophomore, said. "It's a privilege to play this game, and it can go away in a second. It's given me a new appreciation for the game, and I just want to be at my best."
He has been so far. The Redbirds have averaged 4.8 yards per play on offense so far, and that's after playing two very tough opponents (Wisconsin and SIU) in the first four weeks of the season.
Noah Hickcox, Boylan
At 6-4, 315 pounds, Hickcox has worked his way into the starting defensive line rotation as a senior, and the Boylan product is having a solid season. He has eight tackles, a half a tackle for loss and a blocked kick so far this season.
"Noah is playing really well this year," Spack said. "And he's one tough kid."
Hickcox has a torn hip labrum and if he had had the surgery right away, he would have missed his final season of college football. Instead, he's playing through it, and not missing a beat. The defense has scored three touchdowns, and Hickcox was a part of two of them. He was in on the hit that caused the turnover leading to the score both times.
Keondre Jackson, Freeport
The sophomore has worked his way into the starting lineup for ISU, and Jackson is fourth on the team with 20 tackles and two tackles for loss. The starting strong safety also has a pass breakup and a QB hit this season so far.
"He's very tough, and he's got great length," Spack said. "He has just worked his way in there. ... He finds the ball."
Jackson was a walk-on but earned himself a scholarship this season.
Jake Anderson, Durand/Pecatonica and Max Caltagerone, Boylan
These two freshmen are beginning to work themselves into the defensive line rotation already, but it may take some time before they are both ready for full-time college football action. They could both be in the mix as soon as next season, though.
"(Anderson) is ahead of where we thought he would be. We're happy with him," Spack said. "And Caltagerone is doing a lot of good work on our scout team, and we're watching him closely. He's a hard-hat guy. He's a high-effort guy, and we like him."
Caltagerone is 6-2, 255 pounds, and Anderson is 6-5, 245 pounds. Neither has seen any action yet this year.
Jay Taft is a Rockford Register Star sports reporter. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @JayTaft. Sign up for the Rockford High School newsletter at rrstar.com. Jay has covered a wide variety of sports, from the Chicago Bears to youth sports, for more than 20 years at the Register Star, and for nearly 30 years all together. He was a four-sport athlete himself, and is the father of five that went on to be jocks of some kind as well.
This article originally appeared on Rockford Register Star: College football: Illinois State has 6 Rockford-area players on roster