After a heartbreaking loss to up-and-coming Western Michigan, Northwestern must now look ahead to a matchup against another team that may well be the best in their conference.
Fortunately for the Cats, this time the conference in question is the FCS-level Missouri Valley Football Conference and not the FBS-level Mid-American Conference.
Illinois State (1-0) will roll into Evanston after a 10-3 campaign in 2015, tying for the MVFC regular-season title with a 7-1 conference record and ultimately advancing to the second round of the FCS playoffs, as well as a dominant season-opening win over Valparaiso on Saturday.
It’s still a likely win for NU, no doubt. FBS teams were 43-4 against FCS foes in college football’s opening weekend and the Cats won 41-0 last year against an Eastern Illinois team that Illinois State then beat only 34-31 the following week. (Illinois State did lose to Iowa by only a 31-14 score, however.)
Still, this matchup will likely be more difficult than coach Pat Fitzgerald expected when it was scheduled several years ago.
Last time out: Illinois State hammered Valparaiso 50-13 at home on Saturday to begin their season.
Valparaiso’s football program is perennially weak — they’re 9-69 dating back to 2009 and went 1-9 last year — but the Redbirds still had an impressive showing in the game, using seven different runners to rack up 271 rushing yards (compared to Valparaiso’s mere 22).
Biggest Strength: The offensive and defensive lines for Illinois State return a lot of experience from last year’s excellent squads.
The entire five-man offensive line unit started all 13 games last year and is back again in its entirety this season. Center Mark Spelman earned all-MVFC honors, while left guard Kyle Avaloy was second-team all-MVFC.
The group paved the way for the Redbirds to rank tied for fifth in the FCS in yards-per-rush attempt last year and could pose a major obstacle for the Cats, which struggled mightily to penetrate Western Michigan’s O-line and get pressure on quarterback Zach Terrell on Saturday.
On the other side of the ball, Illinois State also returns three defensive line starters from a defense that allowed only 21.2 points per game last year. Nose guard Dalton Keene and tackle Matt McCown are the leaders of a unit that isn’t particularly aggressive (not many sacks) but is hard to push downfield.
Biggest Weakness: The passing game remains a huge uncertainty for Illinois State after the graduation of two-time All-MVFC quarterback Tre Roberson.
Sophomore Jake Kolbe, a Naperville Central product, started for the first time in his career against Valparaiso and wasn’t tested much, completing 11 of 19 passes for 166 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Kolbe has a solid cast of receivers to work with — headliner Anthony Warrum’s 1,290 yards a year ago ranked third in school history and he was one of just four FCS receivers named to the CFPA National Performer of the Year Watch List for 2016 — but the passing attack will soon be facing an NU secondary unlike any they’ve seen before.
Biggest Question: Can Illinois State contain Justin Jackson?
Even in the Western Michigan loss, Jackson appeared to be in prime mid-season form, mixing his standard up-the-middle rushes with some explosive long plays that haven’t always been a big part of his game.
Against an FCS foe like Illinois State, Fitzgerald will likely look to keep the ball on the ground even more often, and Jackson will be a tough assignment for a Redbirds linebacking corps that the team’s own media guide describes as the “most thin” positional group.