Story and photo courtesy of Illinois State Athletics
NORMAL, Ill. – The No. 19 Illinois State Redbirds utilized a balanced offensive attack, and suffocating defensive effort, en route to a 56-14 season opening win over Dayton in front of 4,840 fans Saturday afternoon at Hancock Stadium. Senior quarterback Matt Brown threw for three touchdowns, running backs Darrelynn Dunn and Cameron Hunt each amassed 100-plus rush yards and the defense allowed just 138 yards of total offense in the victory.
The Illinois State offense amassed 510 yards of total-offense as Dunn, a senior running back from Bloomington, Ill., set career-highs with 22 carries for 120 yards and three scores. It tied an ISU school record for rush touchdowns in a season opener and paced an ISU ground game that totaled 318 yards on 51 carries. Hunt added a career-high 127 yards on 14 carries, highlighted by an 82-yard touchdown run.
Brown completed 19-of-30 passes for 166 yards and three scores, setting the ISU all-time career completion record along the way. His 12-yard pass to Dunn on Illinois State’s second drive gave Brown 664 career-completions, one more than former quarterback Kevin Glenn (’00). Tyrone Walker and Lechein Neblett were his top targets, with each wide out registering six receptions.
ISU came out throwing, with Brown completing his first five passes. Receptions were made to Neblett, Walker and Donovan Harden. After a pass interference penalty gave the Redbirds first-and-goal from the two, Dunn jumped over the defensive line for the score. The scoring drive lasted 5:45 and covered 74-yards on 13-plays.
Dayton never found a rhythm offensively. The ISU defense limited the Flyers to just three opening-half first downs and only 40-yards of total offense at the break. Dayton never moved the ball into the red zone in first half. Quarterback Will Bardo finished the game 7-for-21 for 96 yards and one touchdown. Dayton was 2-for-14 on third downs and registered only seven first downs on the day. ISU Seniors Evan Frierson and Mike Zimmer each recorded one sack, while Colton Underwood had a team-leading five tackles. Will Davis led the ISU defense with 1.5 tackles-for-loss.
With 10:44 to go in the opening half, the Redbirds found the end zone again. The offense orchestrated a 7-play, 41-yard drive, capped by a 14-yard touchdown pass from Brown to wide out Phil Dudley. Brown had kept the drive alive with a 7-yard first down scamper on 4th-and-3 from the Flyers’ 43-yard line.
Brown would find the end zone again with 3:58 to go in the opening half, connecting with Neblett on a fade route for an 8-yard score. It was the first career touchdown reception for Neblett and put the Redbirds up, 21-0.
Flyers punt returner Gary Hunter put Dayton on the board with a 77-yard punt return for a touchdown with 2:58 to go in the opening half. It was the first time since 2007 that the Redbirds special teams unit allowed a punt return for a score.
Illinois State would immediately respond. With time expiring in the second quarter, Brown led an 11-play, 84-yard drive for a touchdown. Dayton’s second pass interference of the day gave Illinois State first-and-ten inside the Dayton twenty yard line. With 12 seconds to go in the half, Brown connected with Neblett for a 14-yard score, giving ISU a 28-7 lead going into the break. The Redbirds had 278 yards of total offense in the first half and led the time of possession battle at a 4-to-1 pace.
Dayton opened the second half with a three-and-out, and Illinois State worked a 7-play drive for a score. Dunn carried the ball on all but one play, finding pay dirt on a 4-yard dash to cap the 3:13 drive.
Dunn found the end zone again with 4:52 to go in the third, highlighting an 11-play drive that covered 60 yards. He followed his blockers for a 16-yard run on the left side for the score.
The Flyers then registered their only offensive touchdown of the game. Wide out Randy Johnson caught a 17-yard touchdown pass from Bardo to complete a 75-yard drive, making it 42-14 Redbirds.
Hunt’s 82-yard touchdown run, which tied the fifth-longest scoring rush in school history, gave ISU a 49-14 lead with 7:10 to go in the game. It marked the first time since Oct. 16, 2010 that two Redbirds amassed 100-plus rush yards in the same game. Ashton Leggett and Erik Smith accomplished the feat against North Dakota State two years ago.
Illinois State would add one more touchdown with 5:33 to play in regulation, when Dontae McCoy blocked a punt and Pat Meehan recovered and carried it 10 yards for a touchdown.
The 56-points scored by Illinois State was the most tallied in a Redbird home-opener since 2000, when ISU put up 75 points against West Virginia Tech on Aug. 21, 2000.
Saturday marked the first-ever meeting between Dayton and Illinois State.
The Redbirds hit the road next week for a non-conference matchup, Sept. 8, against FCS foe, Eastern Michigan. Kickoff is slated for 12 p.m. CT from Ypsilanti, Mich.