With our Summer Guide now complete, you probably have a general sense of Northwestern's outlook for the coming season. But breaking down any given team's strengths and weaknesses doesn't paint a complete picture. To truly gauge a team's win-loss potential, analyzing the schedule is arguably just as important.
Come game week, we will have detailed, timely, matchup-based write-ups on each opponent, but in the interim, we present to you our Know Your Opponent series. It's our look ahead at all 12 teams on Northwestern's 2015 schedule. So by the time training camp rolls around, you'll have a fuller view of the upcoming season.
Today, we preview Eastern Illinois, Northwestern's week two opponent:
Returning Starters: Offense - 6, Defense - 6
2014 Record: 5-7 (5-3 OVC)
Coach: Kim Dameron, 2nd year (5-7 overall)
After a historic 12-2 season in 2013 which saw quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo dominate the Ohio Valley Conference and entire FCS, Eastern Illinois came back to earth in 2014 in the first year of coach Kim Dameron's tenure. Former coach, Dino Babers, left for Bowling Green the summer before and Garoppolo went on to the New England Patriots, so EIU was left to pick up the pieces. That led to a rough 5-7 campaign without a postseason appearance just one year after the Panthers won their first FCS playoff game since 1989. But, there some bright spots amid the losing as quarterback Jalen Whitlow emerged as a big playmaker while senior wide receiver Adam Drake accumulated over 1200 receiving yards.
Drake has since graduated but Whitlow, a Kentucky transfer, and starting running back Shepard Little--who rushed for nearly 800 yards last season--are still in Charleston and are primed to lead the Panthers' offense. Dameron is probably going to run most of his plays through those two, who each possess a lot of speed and multi-dimensionality. In fact, Whitlow ran for just five less yards than Little in 2014 and out of EIU's returning pass-catchers, Little is second in receiving yards from last year, behind presumed No. 1 wide receiver Anthony Taylor. Outside of those three, the Panthers have no skill position players back for this season that have accumulated significant playing time or production in their careers. That means this is an offense that will need unproven guys to play a lot of snaps.
The situation on defense is even more dire, as EIU's top three tacklers in 2014 are now gone. The Panthers will be led by tackle Dino Fanti (64 total tackles and 15.5 tackles for loss last season) and defensive back Jourdan Wickliffe (62 tackles and a team-high four interceptions) as they are forced into more prominent positions. Safety Pono Choy and linebacker Fedney Delphonse also played big roles in the Panthers' year and are likely starters at their respective positions. Ole Miss transfer Anthony Standifer is a key returner at defensive back as well, as he notched three interceptions in his junior campaign.
Three players to know
Jalen Whitlow, QB - A typical dual-threat quarterback, Whitlow was actually supposed to be the backup for EIU last season behind the now-graduated Andrew Manley--one of the Panthers' many recruits from Hawaii--but overtook the senior and had a great season. Whitlow, who started under center for part of his freshman and sophomore seasons at Kentucky, threw for over 2000 yards and 15 interceptions in addition to his exploits on the ground, which resulted in 12 rushing touchdowns. Simply, he finds way for the Panthers to score and does so creatively.
Shepard Little, RB - Helping Whitlow out greatly is his backfield partner Little, who averaged over six yards a carry in 2014. In addition to his explosiveness out of the backfield, Little has established himself as a decent pass-catcher as well, providing Whitlow with another option to look for. Little only caught 16 passes in 10 games in his junior campaign but with the departures of EIU's top wide receivers and tight end, look for him to increase his role in the passing game as well.
Jourdan Wickliffe, CB - Along with Fanti, Wickliffe is going to be entrusted with guiding this young Panthers defense that will be missing a bunch of starters from last year. He has a nose for the ball and is also a sure tackler, so he essentially represents the full complement of skills a cover corner needs. For a defense that is lacking in experience, shutting down an opponent's top receiver is vital, which is what Wickliffe can do.
On the surface, EIU--an FCS team that went 5-7 last season--doesn't look like a team that should cause much trouble for even a middle-of-the-road Big Ten team in Northwestern. However, with returning talent on both sides of the ball, the Panthers could make for a tough matchup for the Wildcats, who lost to similar non-conference teams last season in California and Northern Illinois. Don't count this one as an automatic win for NU. The Wildcats will have to stay focused with a big matchup at Duke looming the following week.
Date: Sept. 12
Time: 3 p.m. CT
Betting Line: Northwestern -17