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Know your opponent, week 3: Western Illinois

After a bye, the Western Illinois Leathernecks come to Evanston as NU's final tuneup for conference play.

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sp

Breaking down any given team's strengths and weaknesses doesn't paint a complete picture. To truly gauge a team's win-loss potential in the preseason, analyzing the schedule is arguably just as important. We will have detailed, timely, matchup-based write-ups on each opponent in the week leading up. In the interim, we present to you our Northwestern opponent summer look ahead. It's a little thing called "Know Your Opponent." The title describes itself: take a peek at the schedule, read up and head into the fall having already completed part of your weekly opponent studying diet.

The Basics

Returning Starters: Offense - 8 Defense - 8

2013 Record: 4-8 (2-6 Missouri Valley)

Coach: Bob Nielson, 2nd year

2013 Capsule

Last season, the first at the helm for coach Bob Nielson, Western Illinois struggled. It was a rebuilding year that had its bright spots, but overall, the Leathernecks weren’t able to make much noise. The high points were a 3-0 start against non-FBS competition, including a win over South Dakota, and a respectable effort against Minnesota. Despite eventually falling 29-12, WIU gave the Gophers some trouble. But Nielson’s team then proceeded to go 1-6 in their last seven games, and finished second to last in the Valley.

Offensive overview

Quite simply, the WIU offense isn’t very potent – or at least it wasn’t last year. The Leathernecks finished 111th (out of 122 teams) in FCS in passing efficiency, and 92nd in total offense. The ground attack was a tad better, but not much. Overall, the offense is balanced but uninspiring.

Defensive overview

WIU was much better on the defensive side of the ball in 2013. They actually finished 7th in FCS in total defense, 3rd in passing defense, and 12th in takeaways. And they return 8 of 11 starters in 2014, so if there’s one thing for Northwestern to be wary of, it’s turnovers. However, if the Wildcats protect the ball and establish the running game, they should be fine.

Three players to know

J.C. Baker, RB – A junior transfer last season, Baker was the runner-up for MVC newcomer of the year in 2013. He averaged 95.8 yards per game on the ground (1,149 for the season), and 5.3 yards per carry, a figures to lead the offense in 2014.

Kevin Kintzel, LB – A senior linebacker who was preseason All-MVC honorable mention, Kintzel is a playmaker. He accounted for eight turnovers last season, was the team’s leading tackler, and scored three defensive touchdowns.

Martinez Davis, DB – A preseason All-MVC selection, the senior was a big part of WIU's stingy pass defense last year. He has 8 interceptions and 28 passes defended in 29 career games, and is probably the team's most talented player.

Final Thoughts

You never want to absentmindedly write off FCS teams, but in this case, it’s hard not to. Northwestern will surely be looking ahead to the following weekend, when they travel to State College for their first stern test of the season against Penn State; and in a similar situation last year, with the Ohio State game looming, NU played groggily against Maine. But even then, the Wildcats still prevailed as comfortable winners, and WIU, a team picked to finish 9th out of 10 teams in the MVC, isn’t even on Maine’s level. This should be a comfortable win for Northwestern.