VERMILLION, S.D. — Minutes after a road victory over a nationally ranked opponent, the Illinois State football team’s thoughts drifted back to Illinois.
“All week we were talking about how we wanted to win this game for Pam,” cornerback Jarrell Jackson said of football office secretary Pam Merna, who is in hospice care with cancer. “It means a lot to us. She’s been at ISU forever. She means a lot to us.”
Merna has answered the phone in the ISU football office since 1993 and has worked for head coaches Jim Heacock, Todd Berry, Denver Johnson and Brock Spack.
“We’re going to give her the game ball tomorrow (Sunday). I can hardly wait to do that,” said Spack after his team’s 20-14 win over No. 15 South Dakota on Saturday.
“She’s been our secretary for a long time. It’s really been hard on all of us to watch. Our prayers and thoughts go out to her. Pam, we love you. We’ve got a game ball for you.”
Linebacker with hands
ISU linebacker Kenton Wilhoit looked like a receiver when he jumped to snare a third-quarter South Dakota pass and returned the interception 20 yards for a touchdown that put the Redbirds ahead 20-7.
Wilhoit, who brought back an interception 29 yards for a score in March against Northern Iowa, is used to having the football in his hands. He was an all-state running back at Oak Grove (Mo.) High School.
“It came on me quick. I had pretty good reaction time on it. It stuck to my hands and I ran right on in,” Wilhoit said. “I’m thankful for my offense in high school. I caught the ball a lot growing up. I was always playing catch so it’s easy for me to catch a football. I’m grateful for that.”
A linebacker in his playing days at Purdue, Spack was “very impressed” with Wilhoit’s play.
“The ball was coming from about 10 yards away. It was a rifle shot,” said Spack. “That’s a big-time play.”
Breathing just fine
Redbird tailback Cole Mueller rushed for a career-high 178 yards on 25 carries in the win. He met the media afterward with cotton stuffed in both nostrils to combat a bloody nose.
For his efforts, Mueller was named Missouri Valley Football Conference Offensive Player of the Week and Newcomer of the Week on Sunday.
“A bloody nose doesn’t bother me,” Mueller said. “I’ve wrestled my whole life. I’ve dealt with having double nose plugs for a wrestling tournament. It’s not much different playing football with them.”
Mueller had blood dripping from one nostril early in the game and the other side followed in the fourth quarter.
Spack had said earlier in the week he would like to give a hot back the majority of the carries instead of a more equal distribution the Redbirds have featured for most of the season.
“It’s good to get in a groove. Then you can like read the defense,” said Mueller. “You can feel out who does what and who’s good at what. It kind of helps being able to run better.”
Mueller’s first-half 69-yard touchdown sprint in the first half came on a play that did not work nearly as well last week against North Dakota State.
“He was in too big of a hurry. We talked about that during the week. Let that play simmer a little bit,” said Spack. “Be patient. Take your time. Play fast but don’t be in a hurry.
"He timed it up very well. It was the exact same play we ran against NDSU. It should have been a touchdown, but he got tackled for a 2-yard gain.”
Coyotes quarterback and Normal West High School product Carson Camp left the game in the second quarter after absorbing a crunching hit from ISU linebacker Shanon Reid.
No penalty flags were initially thrown. After a targeting penalty was announced, the play went to review and the infraction was overturned by the replay official.
Camp, who completed 3 of 5 passes for 20 yards before exiting, did not return to the game and came out for the second half with his left arm in a sling.
“The replay official didn’t think it was targeting, but it was definitely a big hit,” South Dakota coach Bob Nielson said. “We’ll see how bad the injury is. I can’t tell you right now.”
Coyotes linebacker Jack Cochrane called it “a nasty play, but it’s part of the game.”
South Dakota receiver Brett Samson said Camp was “in good spirits. That’s really all that matters right now.”
Reid’s hit forced a fumble that was recovered by Redbird Jeremiah Jordan.
Defense makes stand
The ISU defense held firm in the fourth quarter when the Coyotes had first-and-goal at the Redbird 9-yard line.
“That’s one of the hardest series I’ve ever had to play in my life,” cornerback Jarrell Jackson said. “You could tell a lot of us were tired. We had to fight through adversity. A lot of guys were cramping up. But we had to fight through it, and we came up big.”
Reid broke up a third down pass. On fourth down, Wilhoit and Clayton Isbell stopped scrambling quarterback Cole Stenstrom at the 4 to preserve a six-point lead.
“That’s a tough way to lose when you have an opportunity to put the ball in the end zone at the end of the game and don’t get it done,” said Nielson. “We’ve got to find a way to make plays. That’s a really good defensive team. Nobody has scored a lot of points against them.”
ISU’s trip to play South Dakota features a state-hopping itinerary.
The team flies into the airport in Sioux City, Iowa, crosses the Missouri River to stay in a South Sioux City, Neb., hotel before driving north through North Sioux City, S.D., to the South Dakota campus in Vermillion.
Watch now: Illinois State football goes on the road and upsets South Dakota
Watch now: Illinois State lands in Sioux City, Iowa for Saturday game in South Dakota
Watch now: Brock Spack evaluates South Dakota
Shanon Reid vs. South Dakota
Carson Camp vs. ISU
Watch now: Aidan Bresnahan puts Illinois State ahead with 47-yard field goal
Watch now: Carson Camp pass tipped, but completed
Watch now: Carson Camp throws during pregame
Watch now: Jarrell Jackson discusses game clinching interception
Wilhoit interception for TD
Mueller to the house
Trey Georgie blocking vs. South Dakota
Jefferson handing to Mueller vs. South Dakota
ISU offensive line vs. South Dakota
Bryce Jefferson vs. South Dakota
Cole Mueller run
Contact Randy Reinhardt at (309) 820-3403. Follow him on Twitter: pg_reinhardt