The bitter cold of winter has gone, the plants have grown for spring and the heated summer days are dwindling down: it’s time for football season.
The Bulldogs will begin their season with a small road trip over to Normal, Illinois to take on Illinois State on Saturday. Here are some things to watch for during the season opener.
Illinois State comes in to the season opener with a #18 ranking in the FCS, and has made the playoffs 3 years in a row. Butler has very little experience with the Redbirds, playing only once before in school history back in 1949. The Redbirds have enjoyed success while playing Pioneer Football League teams as their record is 10-6.
The Redbird offense is led by junior Jake Kolbe, who last season threw for 2,495 yards and 20 touchdowns (7 interceptions) as the starter in 11 games. Kolbe is just the 7th quarterback in school history to reach the 2,000 yard mark in a season and is looking to have an even bigger year this time around.
The offense around Jake Kolbe has a pretty new look after the 6-6 season last year. Running back Markel Smith will lead the backfield after sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer rules. At Central Missouri in 2015, Smith rushed for 913 yards and 7 touchdowns. Smith went for 100 yards and scored a touchdown in every game during a 5 game stretch in the middle of the season with Central Missouri as well.
At the receiving end, the Redbirds will have many names catching passes throughout the field. Senior Anthony Fowler is sure to get some touches, after playing in all 12 games last season, catching 3 touchdowns and 353 receiving yards. Junior Spencer Schnell will also be a force through the air as he is coming off an impressive sophomore season recording 434 receiving yards and 1 touchdown on his way to a Missouri Valley Football Conference All-Newcomer Team selection. Schnell also ranked 2nd in the conference in punt return average with 10.4 yards. Junior Christian Gibbs ranked 2nd on the team last year with 5 receiving touchdowns and 547 yards, so he will be a big name to watch out for as well.
Out of the 14 returning starters to Illinois State, 8 of them are on defense. This defense went through some struggles last year in the middle of the season, losing 4 straight games and giving up at least 20 points in all of them, but finished out the season going 4-2. Leading the defense will be lineman Dalton Keene, who returns for his senior season and has been named a captain. Keene was named to the All-MVFC Second Team after starting in all 12 games last season and racking up 67 tackles and 3.5 sacks.
Junior linebacker Brannon Barry will also lead the defense after playing in 11 games last year with 15 tackles and 2 sacks. Looking at the defensive backfield, Senior DB Davontae Harris will be a major obstacle for Butler quarterback Will Marty. Harris made the All-MVFC First Team last season defending 15 passes, intercepting 2, and collecting 59 tackles on the season. This defense seems to be very well rounded and definitely poses a challenge for the Bulldogs in the season opener.
This first matchup will be extremely tough for the Bulldogs. It’ll be interesting to see how Butler’s defense, which has a lot of new faces taking the field, can stand up to Jake Kolbe and the rest of the Redbird offense. I believe the key will be putting pressure on Kolbe and stopping the air attack as much as possible. As mentioned before, Illinois State returns 14 players from last year, and that team beat Northwestern in the 2nd week of the season by the score of 9-7. Northwestern went on to win the Pinstripe Bowl.
The game will be at 7:30 on Saturday on ESPN3.