With the Most Important Players and Position Previews sections of our Summer Guide having wrapped up, we now move on to our Know Your Opponent series, in which we preview every team Northwestern will face this season. When we hit game week, we will have more in-depth and comprehensive coverage, but for now we give you a general overview of the team so you know what to expect.
We move on to Illinois State, which will be the last FCS team to play in Evanston for the foreseeable future.
Returning Starters: Offense - 9, Defense - 5
2015 Record: 10-3 (7-1 MVFC)
Coach: Brock Spack, 7th year, (56-29)
After nearly winning the FCS playoff in 2014, the 2015 iteration of the Redbirds was once again one of the best teams in the FCS. The Redbirds cruised to a 7-1 record in the MVFC and a earned a share of first place with North Dakota State. However, Illinois State was upset by Richmond in the FCS Playoffs Quarterfinals despite entering the tournament as the No. 2 seed. The loss was a big disappointment for a team that could have challenged for an FCS title last year, especially with All-American running back Marshaun Coprich, linebacker David Perkins, and quarterback Tre Roberson leaving for the NFL after the season. Illinois State’s only matchup against an FBS team last season was a 31-14 loss at Iowa.
Brock Spack’s offense, as mentioned, will be losing its two most important players in 2016, MVFC Offensive Player of the Year Marshaun Coprich and quarterback Tre Roberson. However, the other nine starters from its final game against Richmond, including the entire offensive line and the entire receiving corps, are still on the roster for 2016. Illinois State’s offense finished 26th in average total yards per game and were even better on a yards per play basis.
Coprich led Illinois State’s rushing attack, which averaged an impressive 234 yards per game, good enough for 14th in the country. While the FCS stats are definitely inflated (it must be nice to defeat Morgan State 67-14), Illinois State’s rushing capability should still be present with the entire offensive line and backup running back Jamal Towns returning. Towns averaged nearly six yards per carry in a backup role last season, and is a competent running back even at 5-foot-6.
Meanwhile, the quarterback situation does not look promising. Sophomore Jake Kolbe subbed for Roberson during the team’s final game, but the Redbirds have three underclassmen quarterbacks who could win the job in camp. One of them, redshirt freshman Hassan Muhammad-Rogers, might take the reins in 2016 given his recruiting pedigree. Illinois State did not feature much of a passing attack last season, although that may be a result of playing lackluster competition. The Redbirds averaged 21.76 passing attempts per game and finished 69th in passing yards per game in the FCS. However, Illinois State showed a propensity to air the ball out when it needed to, with mixed results. Tre Roberson, last year’s starting quarterback, was signed to play cornerback by the Vikings. It’s difficult to say what Illinois State’s offense will look like for certain without two of its best players, but it’s safe to say it will be run-heavy.
The turnover from the elite squads of 2014 and 2015 will show more on defense, where Illinois State struggles compared to its offensive ability. Star OLB David Perkins has departed along with starting DE Teddy Corwin. In 2015, Illinois State’s defense was ranked 53rd in the FCS by average total yards allowed per game. While this stat is not adjusted for competition, Illinois State’s average yards per play allowed was 5.08 yards, outside the elite tier of FCS defenses.
Illinois State’s defense was not terrible last year, but against quality competition like Youngstown State, Eastern Illinois (a team which Northwestern shut out 41-0) and Richmond, opposing offenses exploited weaknesses in the Redbirds’ system. Illinois State did not have a good secondary last season, which good teams were able to repeatedly exploit. The run defense was better, but with the Redbirds rebuilding its depth at linebacker and in the secondary, Northwestern should be able to run an effective offense.
However, Illinois State is bringing in a host of players to help. Three-star recruit Jamal Brown could find his way into the secondary. Transfers David Kenney and Reggie Spearman could make an impact on the defensive line and at linebacker, respectively.
Three players to know
WR Anthony Warrum - With Coprich and Roberson gone, Anthony Warrum will assume the role of offensive playmaker. He totaled 1,290 yards and 15 touchdowns last season and was way ahead of his competition in the MVFC. We shall see who is throwing him the ball come September, but at least the quarterback will have a very reliable pass-catcher at hand.
C Mark Spelman - It’s rare to find a player to watch coming from the offensive line, but Mark Spelman fits the bill. He’s been the rock of Illinois State’s offensive line for both FCS Playoff runs, and he made the All-MVFC First Team last year.
DT Dalton Keene - Keene was second on the team in sacks last season and could have a banner season as a junior in 2016. He will be relied on heavily to create pressure with David Perkins gone.
Illinois State has been a good football team over the last two years and should have enough returning talent to make a run for the FCS playoffs, but the loss of three star players and no certain method of replacing them will make the team worse. The team also won quite a few games by the skin of its teeth last year and were slightly worse than their record shows. Like most FCS teams, Illinois State does not have enough depth or talent to compete with Northwestern on paper. However, Brock Spack is a fine head coach, and Illinois State certainly has the experience necessary to pull off a big upset. Enjoy the final Northwestern FCS matchup!
Date: Sep. 10
Time: 2:30 p.m. CT
Betting line: Not yet available