The final installment of our 2021 summer guide is the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll take you through Northwestern’s schedule week by week, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent and identifying some key players to look for. The series serves as a way for us to evaluate and take stock of the team’s upcoming opponents.
Next up, the Wildcats face Indiana State for the first time in program history.
2019* record: 5-7
Coach: Curt Mallory
Usually in the Know Your Opponents series, we give you the S&P+ metrics that are courtesy of Bill Connelly at ESPN, and how you can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here. However, with Indiana State being an FCS team and having sat out the 2020 season due to the pandemic, those metrics aren’t exactly available for the Sycamores at the moment. Here is where they ranked overall in Connelly’s self-proclaimed Beta version of S&P+ for FCS prior to the 2019 playoffs.
2019* S&P+ Overall: (54th overall out of 127 FCS teams)
Indiana State was one of 43 teams to ultimately take the FCS’ modified spring season off, citing concerns with the number of games the Sycamores could potentially end up playing in the calendar year with minimal recovery time in between seasons. The last time ISU took the field was November 23, 2019, just under two years prior to their upcoming matchup with the Wildcats in September.
The Sycamores had a relatively disappointing run in their last full season given they were coming off an FCS top-25 finish in 2018. Defensively, Indiana State allowed an average of 22 points per game, only able to stop four of their opponents’ 34 trips in to the red-zone. Offensively, they matched up to their opponents in average rushing and passing yards per attempt and per game, but couldn’t seem to convert that production in to points when it came down to it. Top that off with being a part of arguably the best conference in the FCS, and Indiana State was painstakingly average in their last season on the gridiron.
That being said, a lot has changed since the 2019-2020 season for the Sycamores, so let’s have a look at what the Wildcats might be up against come fall.
The bulk of Indiana State’s key skill position players will return this year, making life a bit easier for Northwestern’s scouting team given the limited number of games Wildcat players and coaches will be able to study up on. Quarterback Kurt Wilderman is likely to start against the ‘Cats at the helm, and the redshirt junior boasts a respectable 68% completion rate from the 2019 season where he threw for 1,170 yards and six touchdowns.
As far as targets go, redshirt junior Dante Hendrix returns out wide, looking to replicate his team leading 653-receiving-yard season which earned him first-team Missouri Valley Conference honors after the fact. Leading rusher Pet Kerlegrand returns as well, hoping to continue averaging 5.5 yards per carry behind another first-team MVFC honoree in Isaiah Edwards leading the offensive line.
The Sycamores did not get as lucky with returners on the defensive side of the ball. A decent number of their DB corps departed, including Jonas Griffith, who earned a spot as an FCS Second Team All-American back in 2019. Linebacker Clayton Glasco took off as well after tallying 86 tackles himself, nearly half of which were solo.
However, first-team MVFC honoree Michael Thomas returns in the backfield, where he notched 73 total tackles during the 2019-2020 carousel and could be a threat to Northwestern’s inexperienced wide receiving corps. Defensive linemen Henrick Barndt and Inoke Maola return as well, looking to make some noise once again after having previously combined for 8.5 sacks together in the crosshairs.
Three Players to Know
Dante Hendrix, WR
Despite Northwestern’s anticipated brick wall of a secondary, Hendrix could turn out to be a legitimate threat in the air. Aside from MVFC first team honors, the redshirt junior ranked third in the conference in receiving in 2019-20 — a conference home to some of the FCS’ powerhouses in North and South Dakota State. Hendrix also possesses explosive speed which he is fond of bringing out on kick-returns, so it would make sense for the Wildcats to keep tabs on him in their scouting reports.
Michael Thomas, DB
Though not quite the star his New Orleans Saints equivalent is in the NFL, this Michael Thomas is pretty good by FCS standards. He even started out as a wide receiver but completed his transition to safety in 2019, and needless to say it was a worthwhile switch. The California native leads the current ISU roster in tackles on top of having forced three fumbles and two interceptions in his last go-around. Though he won’t be able to cover the whole Northwestern receiving core by himself, the Wildcats’ pass catchers will have to work hard to fake Thomas out, especially because he knows the mind of a receiver so well.
Isaiah Edwards, OL
Hailing from Last Chance U’s Independence Community College, Isaiah Edwards played an integral part in Indiana State’s last successful season in 2018. He pushed the line to block for 2,656 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns, more than doubling the rushing yardage from 2017. Though an injury kept the redshirt senior out of the Sycamores’ last full season, Edwards will be a force on the left flank after nearly two years of recovery allowed him time to improve. Locking him down could grant Northwestern’s defensive line with a chance to prove themselves early on in the season and prepare them for more high-level matchups to come.