Pair of Redbirds return to face former teammates

Dan Miller

Illinois State running back and former Minnesota tailback Demetrus Johnson has been a recluse this week.

“I’ve been receiving phone calls ever since we got on (Minnesota’s) schedule,” he said. “This week, I’ve cut off all calls in order to focus on the game.”

Johnson and the heavy underdog Division I-AA Redbirds will have to focus hard against the 22nd-ranked Gophers (1-0) when they play at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at the Metrodome.

The Redbirds (1-0) were added to Minnesota’s schedule only after Baylor backed out of its contract in October 2003 to play the Gophers .

Minnesota Athletics Director Joel Maturi rushed to find a replacement and settled on the Redbirds in the spring.

Johnson and fellow former Gopher-turned-Redbird wide receiver Pierre Jackson, said despite their team’s underdog status, it has some things going for it when it faces Minnesota.

The Redbirds beat Saint Xavier on Sept. 2 44-14 in their season opener and have a couple more days to prepare for tomorrow’s game than the Gophers – who played Toledo on Saturday.

“We have had a little more time to prepare,” Jackson said. “I was there (at Minnesota) for two years, and I know what it’s like. They have a great offense and schemes.”

Jackson, who still talks to some of the Gophers players on a regular basis, said he’s personally been looking forward to Saturday’s opportunity.

“It’s going to be a little weird being out there with all those guys who I know so well,” he said. “But I am also anxious to get out there and see what we can do.”

Illinois State head coach Denver Johnson’s team returns seven starters on offense and eight on defense. His teams are known for their ground attack, and the 2004 Redbirds will likely be no exception.

The team averaged 242.3 yards per game last year. Demetrus Johnson is the Redbirds’ top returnee in the backfield. He carried the ball 122 times last season for 609 yards.

Senior quarterback Yance Vaughan will take the reigns this season for the Redbirds. Vaughan completed 13-of-20 passes for 225 yards and a touchdown against Saint Xavier.

On defense, the Redbirds are led by senior linebacker Boomer Brigsby, who was the 2003 Gateway Conference Defensive Player of the Year.

Illinois State got a taste of Big Ten football last season, losing 49-22 to last-place Illinois. Denver Johnson said he is excited to play another Big Ten team in the Metrodome.

The two teams last met on Sept. 18, 1999, when Minnesota racked up its 11th-highest offensive game in team history with 571 yards and beat the Redbirds 55-7.

So the stage is set for a classic battle, but don’t tell Denver Johnson that.

“I don’t like to get into the David-and-Goliath analogies,” he said. “I just want our kids to play hard and smart, and I think they’ll do that.”