Two weeks removed from their last matchup, the Bison football team looks to get back into the win column against the Illinois State Redbirds this Saturday. Despite being picked to finish in the bottom half of the conference, the Redbirds and Bison find themselves tied in the conference standings with a record of 3-1. Regardless of where they sit in the standings, the Bison are keeping the same mentality going into Saturday.
“We’re going to prepare the same way we have all year and trust our process,” James Kaczor said of preparing for Illinois State. “Each game is a big game. We’re going to take it one game at a time.”
This week’s game also presents some unique circumstances for Bison players and coaches. Last weekend marked the first time the Bison have had their bye week in the middle of the conference season since 2010. Although there have been discussions about whether the bye was beneficial or not, it did give players an extra week of rest after their highly competitive matchup with South Dakota State.
“It’s good to recharge and refocus,” Kaczor acknowledged. “I know, old man like me, it’s good to have a bye week, let my body recover for a long season.”
While the Bison are getting their extra rest, they’ll also be preparing for former Big Ten quarterback Zack Annexstad. When arriving at the University of Minnesota as a walk-on in 2018, Annexstad earned the starting QB job under P.J. Fleck that fall and joined Baker Mayfield as the second walk-on true freshman quarterback to ever start a season opener. However, following three years of limited playing time, Annexstad transferred to Illinois State for the 2022 season.
So far this season, Annexstad has thrown for over 220 yards per game and 10 touchdowns through seven games. Complimented by running back Wenkers Wright, receiver Jalen Carr, and tight end Tanner Taula, the Illinois State offense, led by Annexstad, presents a difficult challenge to opposing defenses.
“He has charisma to him,” Bison coach Matt Entz said praising Annexstad. “Is efficient with the football. I just think composure, leadership, having played and worked at the University of Minnesota probably benefitted him as far as coming in and being able to play right away.”
Along with that, the Bison defense that has allowed over 100 rushing yards in each game this season will square off with Redbirds’ running back Wenkers Wright who is coming off a 180-yard rushing performance last week. The Bison defense’s tackling issues have been a huge emphasis this week in order to contain Wright.
“That was definitely the emphasize,” Bison leading tackler James Kaczor stated. “Have a lot of tackling circuits, take away circuits, and just work on the fundamentals.”
On the offensive side of the football, the same Bison that have been trending towards a more pass-heavy offense and will be without veteran wide receiver Phoenix Sproles for good. Sproles, who has been hampered all season long by a nagging hamstring injury, entered the transfer portal this week and will have one year of eligibility remaining.
“Unfortunately, Phoenix had been battling some injuries,” Entz commented on Sproles’ departure. “It’s still the same number of faces that are in the position room right now. As far as our work and our focus at practice, we went about our business like I anticipated we would’ve.”
As Sproles departs the Bison program, the leadership role that he provided will have to be taken over by other veteran receivers such as Zach Mathis. While Mathis had only hauled in 14 catches and no touchdowns in his career prior to this season, he remains the veteran of the group.
“Leadership wise for sure. It kind of falls on me being the oldest and it’s something I’ve wanted to do anyways,” Mathis asserted. “Developing leaders and having good leaders is essential to a good football program.”
Without Sproles and Noah Gindorff, Mathis has stepped up big time for the Bison. Mathis, a fifth-year senior, has logged 10 catches for 139 yards and a touchdown over the last two games. Even though it hurts to lose a friend, Mathis knows that he and the rest of the wide receiver room need to keep their foot on the throttle.
“We’re just still pushing forward,” Mathis said. “The main part of it’s just that we lost a friend. We all wish him the best. There’s no hard feelings or anything like that. We’re all just seeking to keep pushing towards improving.”
Coming off a bye, it’ll be interesting to see how the Bison respond to a loss last time out. Although it might not be a nearly as intense matchup, the Bison certainly need to stay focused as they cannot afford to drop two straight games.
“Super focused on Illinois State and the issues that they cause for us,” Entz said. “We’ll have our work cut out for us. Excited to get back to work.”
The Bison and Redbirds will kick off from the Fargodome at 2:30 p.m. and the game will also be televised on the statewide ABC network of WDAY. You can also listen to Rob Hipp on the play-by-play and Bison legend Phil Hansen on the commentary at Bison1660-AM or 92.7 on the FM dial.