Valparaiso (0-0, 0-0 PFL) at #8/10 Illinois State (0-0, 0-0 MVFC)
Game #1: Saturday, Sept. 3, 6 p.m.
Hancock Stadium (13,391 - FieldTurf) - Normal, Ill.
This Week in Crusader Football: The 2016 football season kicks off for Valparaiso University this Saturday evening, as the Crusaders head to Normal, Ill. to take on Illinois State. Valpo opens its 96th season of intercollegiate football against a Redbirds team which enters the game ranked among the top-10 teams in the nation in multiple FCS polls.
Looking Ahead: The Crusaders open the season with back-to-back road games, as next Saturday sees Valpo travel to take on Sacred Heart in Fairfield, Conn. The game is the back end of a home-and-home series between the two programs.
Following the Crusaders: For the 11th straight season, WVUR (95.1 FM, Valparaiso) is home to all 11 Crusader football games in 2016. Todd Ickow returns on play-by-play for Valpo, while David Huseman will provide the color commentary on Saturday. The game can also be seen live on ESPN3, WatchESPN and the ESPN app, with links for the live audio, video and stats available via ValpoAthletics.com.
Head Coach Dave Cecchini: Cecchini begins his third season on the sidelines as head coach for the Brown and Gold in 2016 this Saturday. He enters the 2016 campaign with a 5-17 record, both overall and in two seasons at Valpo. In his first season as head coach of the Crusaders, Cecchini led the program to a four-win season, its winningest season since 2007. Prior to arriving at Valpo, Cecchini served as offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach for the prior four years at Lehigh.
Series Notes: Valpo leads the all-time series with Illinois State, 2-1, but the last of the three meetings between the programs came in 1948 - a 16-14 Redbirds victory. This will be the third time the Crusaders have opened the season against Illinois State, as both the 1933 (26-0) and 1934 (15-0) squads posted shutout victories to kick off the year.
Wrapping Up 2015: Valpo closed out the 2015 campaign with a 1-9 overall record and tied for ninth in the PFL with a 1-7 record in league play. The Crusaders’ victory came on Oct. 3, as they went to Davidson and came away with a 42-35 win over the Wildcats. Senior linebacker Alex Green was selected as a First Team All-PFL honoree - the Crusaders’ first such choice since 2006 - as he ranked eighth in the country and led the PFL with 11.7 tackles/game.
Scouting Illinois State: The Redbirds have been one of the nation’s most consistently successful FCS programs in recent years, advancing to the FCS quarterfinals in three of the last four seasons - including a national title game appearance in 2014. Defending back-to-back MVFC conference champions, Illinois State boasts a trio of Stats FCS Preseason All-Americans, including two members of an offensive line unit which returns its entire group intact from last year’s starting five for every game.
Returning Experience: A total of 12 of last year’s 22 starters return in 2016 for the Crusaders - seven on offense and five on defense. Of the returning starters, six are listed as starters on the week one two-deep on offense, while three are starters and one a second team choice on defense.
Youthful Squad: Of the 99 members of the roster, only five are in their senior season of eligibility, and only three of those five appear on the week one two-deep. In all, the Crusaders enter 2016 with just 23 total upperclassmen on their roster as compared to 24 sophomores and 52 total freshmen, including 39 true freshmen.
Norberg Earns Preseason Honor: Sophomore Griffin Norberg was named a preseason All-PFL choice at fullback. During his rookie year, Norberg saw action in the H-back role for Valpo, hauling in 16 passes for 138 yards. Norberg caught a pair of touchdown passes, including the game-winning touchdown in the Crusaders’ win at Davidson.
Nunes Anchors the Defense: Senior strong safety J.J. Nunes returns for his final year coming off of back-to-back honorable mention All-PFL nods. Last season, Nunes ranked second on the team with 76 tackles while also breaking up five pass attempts, intercepting one pass and forcing two fumbles. Nunes leads an experienced Crusader secondary into the 2016 campaign, as five of last season’s top-12 in tackles return in the secondary this season.
Clarke Back at Quarterback: Junior quarterback Ryan Clarke enters the 2016 campaign as the Crusaders’ starting QB for a second straight season. After seeing limited action as a freshman, Clarke claimed the starting role last year and threw for 980 yards and 10 touchdowns over eight appearances. The highlight of his sophomore campaign came in the win at Davidson, when he threw for a program record-tying five touchdowns and was named the PFL Offensive Player of the Week.
Plenty of Targets: Clarke has a multitude of familiar receivers to work with in the passing game, as seven of the nine players who caught at least 10 passes last season return in 2016. Included among the returnees are junior Frank Catrine (who is off the week one two-deep due to injury), who paced Valpo with 41 catches last year and averaged 10.6 yards/catch, and sophomore Jean Rene, who tallied a team-high five touchdown catches and 456 receiving yards on 34 receptions.
Oh Captain My Captain: Valparaiso enters the 2016 season with three permanent captains: senior defensive back J.J. Nunes, junior wide receiver Frank Catrine and redshirt junior offensive lineman Brian Lang. The Crusaders will also be selecting an individual to serve as game captain for each game as well - at Illinois State, that will be redshirt junior defensive end Jay Slone.