Only a few defenses were as stingy as Illinois State last season.
Despite playing in the Missouri Valley Conference, typically the toughest league in the FCS, the Redbirds were able to hamstring opponents all season long. That’s been the philosophy of head coach Brock Spack since he took the job in 2009.
Spack was a defensive coordinator at Purdue and has found success implementing his defense in Normal. The Redbirds have made the playoffs in four of the last five seasons, and six or seven wins should do the trick again in 2017.
2016 Illinois State Football Season In Review
Ask Northwestern just how good Illinois State’s defense was last season.
The Wildcats went 7-6 and earned a bowl win, but they had their worst offensive performance of the year against the Redbirds. Spack’s bunch completely shut down anything Northwestern tried to do in the game, holding the ‘Cats to just 86 rushing yards on 31 carries. The passing game was ineffective as well, averaging a miniscule 4.7 yards per pass attempt. Two interceptions by the Northwestern defense kept it close, but the Redbirds prevailed, 9-7, thanks to that great effort from the defense.
Offensively, quarterback Jake Kolbe stepped into the starting role as a sophomore and played very well despite his inexperience. He threw for three times as many touchdowns as interceptions and averaged over 225 yards per game. He did it despite being hounded by opposing defenses, as he was sacked 37 times.
Anthony Warrum was Kolbe’s top receiving target and earned second-team All-MVC honors after his second straight season with over 1,000 yards and ten touchdowns. Warrum was a big-play machine, averaging 19.5 yards per reception over his career in Normal.
The Redbirds were particularly stout against the run in 2016. Opposing offenses tried to crack the front seven, but they were largely unsuccessful in their endeavors. Illinois State allowed 3.3 yards per carry in 2016, the 14th best average in FCS.
2017 Illinois State Football Season Preview
Kolbe should be better as a junior, but he will not have his favorite target from last year. Warrum graduated after four productive seasons, so Kolbe will have to find a new top receiver. Christian Gibbs and Spencer Schnell were the next two leading pass catchers in 2016 and will step into starting roles. Additionally, the Redbirds added a talented receiver just a few weeks back in former Florida Atlantic commit Antonio Hadden Jr.
Offensive line remains the primary concern for this unit. Only one starter returns to a position group that had some real issues last season. Underclassmen litter the two-deep, so this could be a real problem yet again.
ISU will boast one of the best defenses in the country once again. Davontae Harris was fantastic in the secondary, breaking up 13 passes last year, and Alec Kocour was a tackling machine at safety. The defensive line looks rock solid too with Adam Conley and Matt Swaine leading the way.
2017 Illinois State Football Schedule
September 2: Illinois State vs. Butler
September 16: Illinois State at Eastern Illinois
September 23: Illinois State at Missouri State
September 30: Illinois State vs. Indiana State
October 7: Illinois State at Northern Arizona
October 14: Illinois State at Southern Illinois
October 21: Illinois State vs. South Dakota
October 28: Illinois State at Youngstown State
November 4: Illinois State vs. Western Illinois
November 11: Illinois State at South Dakota State
November 18: Illinois State vs. North Dakota State
FCS Pick ‘Em Games To Watch
A four-game losing streak almost cost Illinois State a shot at the postseason last year. After the Redbirds upset Northwestern, they collapsed and dropped to 2-4 before rallying.
This season, the ‘Birds need to take care of business early. Illinois State has the toughest final month of anyone in FCS and will only be favored in one of its final four games.
With a tough non-conference road trip to Northern Arizona on the docket as well, Illinois State must beat Western Illinois. It’s in a tough spot on the schedule, but Spack knows it’s the most winnable game down the stretch, too. This is the best time to take the Redbirds in FCS Pick ‘Em Contests this season.