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1st playoff berth since '06 confirms Illinois State's growth
Defensive end Nate Palmer and his fellow seniors on Illinois State’s football team didn’t want it out of their hands again.
They wanted to assure postseason play by winning the Missouri Valley Conference and its automatic bid to the 20-team Division I Football Championship tournament.
But there they were, having tied for third in the MVC, sitting in the Kaufman Football Center as the bracket was announced Nov. 18, wondering if they would leave with the same disappointment as a year ago.
The result was what Palmer called the best moment of his two football seasons for the Redbirds.
Illinois State (8-3) not only made the tournament for the first time since 2006 but drew a first-round bye, sending the 15th-ranked Redbirds to a second-round game Saturday at sixth-ranked Appalachian State (8-3).
It was confirmation that Illinois State had reached a new level after steady improvement during Brock Spack’s four years as head coach.
“When a new coach comes in, it’s always hard to set their tone,” said Simeon grad Palmer, a second team All-MVC choice in both years after his transfer from Illinois. “But coach Spack and his staff already did that even before I got here.”
An offense led by quarterback Matt Brown of Marion, Ill., the conference offensive player of the year, and a sack pack led by ends Palmer and Colton Underwood helped the Redbirds win more than seven regular-season games for just the second time since 1999.
Underwood, a junior from Washington, Ill., led the conference in sacks with 91/2. Palmer was fourth with six.
“We love getting teams in third-and-long so we can lay our ears back and go get the quarterback,” Palmer said. “If we rush three, it’s a competition for who can get there first.”
They were just as skilled in protecting their own, allowing just 10 sacks all season while Brown threw 32 times per game for an average 243 yards and a total of 20 touchdowns.
By Philip Hersh, Chicago Tribune