What to Watch For: Northwestern Faces Illinois State

After a tight season-opening loss to Western Michigan, Northwestern football returns to action Saturday against Illinois State, one of the better teams in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) formerly known as division 1-AA. Here are few things Wildcat fans should know about the Redbirds ahead of this weekend’s matchup.

  1. Illinois State, coming off two of the most successful seasons in school history, is in a transition year. The Redbirds have made six appearances in the FCS post-season tournament, with three of them coming in the last four years under coach Brock Spack (more on him later). The 2012 and 2015 Illinois State teams advanced to the quarterfinals, while the 2014 Redbirds finished as national runners-up, losing 29-27 to North Dakota State in the FCS title game. Over the past two seasons, Illinois State has boasted a dynamic offensive one-two punch of quarterback Tre Roberson and running back Marshaun Coprich. Roberson, a transfer from Indiana, earned back-to-back first-team all-Conference selections while Coprich leaves as a two-time conference player of the year and the Redbirds’ all-time leader in most rushing categories. Despite those notable losses, Illinois State did not skip a beat in a season-opening rout of Valparaiso, with Naperville native Jake Kolbe replacing Roberson at quarterback and six running backs receiving carries in place of Coprich.

Two years after one-time Indiana quarterback Tre Roberson led the Redbirds to the FCS title game, Illinois State seek a seventh winning season in eight years under coach Brock Spack.

2. There are a couple of similarities to Western Michigan. The Broncos used a veteran offensive line (four returning starters) to take advantage of an inexperienced Northwestern defensive line, and the Redbirds could do the same Saturday. All five Illinois State o-linemen from a season ago are back in 2016, led by pre-season all-conference selections Kyle Avaloy and Mark Spelman. These linemen opened plenty of lanes for Redbird rushers in week one, as the six running backs combined for 286 rushing yards, or over eight yards per carry, against Valpo.

3. They feature a record-setting freshman running back. One of the running backs Illinois State used last week was James Robinson, a freshman who arrived in Normal as the all-time leader in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns in Illinois high school history. Robinson amassed 9,045 rushing yards and 158 touchdowns over an incredible high school career, vaulting him past the likes of current Northwestern running back Justin Jackson (6,531 yards and 85 scores) and former NFL ball-carrier Pierre Thomas. Robinson’s college football career didn’t get off to a shabby start either, as the freshman rushed for 37 yards on seven carries and converted a swing pass into a 33-yard receiving touchdown. Senior Jamal Towns, who served as Coprich’s primary backup last season, got the week one start at running back, but Robinson is an explosive playmaker who should get some opportunities to shine against Northwestern.

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Before taking over at Illinois State, Brock Spack served as Joe Tiller’s longtime defensive coordinator at Purdue.

4. Their head coach has Big Ten ties. Brock Spack is entering his eighth season as Illinois State head football coach, and the Redbirds have finished with a winning record in six of his first seven seasons. Spack came to Normal after over a decade as Joe Tiller’s defensive coordinator at Purdue, where his defenses included future NFL pass rushers Shaun Phillips, Rob Ninkovich, Anthony Spencer, and Cliff Avril, among others. Former Purdue offensive line coach and Eastern Kentucky head coach Danny Hope returned to West Lafayette as coach-in-waiting before the 2008 season, and Spack took over in Normal during the same 2008 offesason that saw Tiller’s retirement and Hope’s promotion. In addition to serving as a coach at Purdue, Spack played for the Boilermakers from 1980-1983. His wife is a former Purdue football cheerleader, his daughter played softball for the Boilermakers, and his son, Brent, played linebacker for Brock at Illinois State.


As this Sports Illustrated cover shows, Northwestern’s men’s basketball program has a strong connection to Illinois State.

5. A Northwestern coach has Illinois State ties. Doug Collins, former NBA head coach, current NBA analyst, and father of Northwestern men’s basketball head coach Chris Collins, played at Illinois State in the early 1970s. Collins was a consensus all-American in 1973 and went to the Philadelphia 76ers with the first overall pick of the 1973 NBA Draft. The basketball court at Illinois State was renamed in Collins’ honor in 2007, and all of this made it a little awkward when Chris Collins’ Northwestern team lost to his father’s alma mater in the third game of Chris Collins’ first year as Northwestern head basketball coach. Northwestern’s men’s basketball team rebounded from their early-season loss to the Redbirds, upsetting a couple of ranked opponents and defeating a tough team from Western Michigan in early December. This year’s Northwestern football team hopes to follow a similar script, only these Wildcats are looking for a bounce-back win over Illinois State after an early-season slip-up against the Broncos.

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