After a disappointing start to the season, Northwestern gets right back to action at Ryan Field in Week 2 against the Illinois State Redbirds. Out of Normal, Illinois (yes, that’s the name of the town), the Redbirds are located about two and a half hours from Evanston. Here’s what else we know about Brock Spack’ squad:
1. This is not your typical FCS cakewalk
Illinois State is good. By FCS standards, really good. In 2014, the Redbirds went 13-1 before falling to FCS powerhouse North Dakota State 29-27 in the National Championship game. Last year, they went 10-3, and played eventual Big Ten West champion Iowa to a respectable 31-14 game (though both touchdowns came late in the game). Week 1 showed that they are primed to continue their dominance over most FCS opponents as they walked all over Valparaiso for a 50-13 victory. They’ll enter this game as a consensus Top 10 FCS team, including the No. 9 ranking in the Coaches’ Poll. This may be Northwestern’s last FCS opponent as they make the transition to a 9-game conference schedule, but they are also one of its best.
2. Their strength is the running game
Last year, Illinois State ran for an unprecedented 3,044 total yards and rushed for 39 touchdowns. The attack was led by now-graduated Marshaun Coprich, who averaged over 150 yards per game. Coprich may be gone—he was in the New York Giants’ training camp before getting cut—but the dominance on the ground is still there. The Redbirds used a convoy of six running backs to pick up 271 yards and four touchdowns on the ground in their Week 1 opener. George Moreira and Jamal Towns will lead the effort once again, while 6-foot-3 redshirt-sophomore quarterback Jake Kolbe is a bruiser in short yardage situations. This is far from a one-dimensional offense, however. Kolbe threw 19 times in the win over Valparaiso, and senior wideout Anthony Warrum is coming off of a 1290-yard, 15-touchdown season. Illinois State averaged nearly 35 points per game last year.
3. Rushing defense will be a good test
Northwestern ran over its FCS opponent, Eastern Illinois, last year for 344 yards. Don’t expect it to come that easy against Illinois State. The Redbirds defense held opponents to 3.7 yards per carry, and less than 150 yards per game, last year. They also forced an impressive 20 fumbles last year and then forced two more in their Week 1 victory this season. With Warren Long out with an injury, it will be interesting to see how workhorse running back Justin Jackson teams up with redshirt freshman John Moten and perhaps Auston Anderson against a group that will sell out and stack the box to defend the run. The defense is solid all around, allowing just 130 total yards last week.