Game Preview


Memorial Stadium
Saturday, October 30, 11:00 am CDT
TV: Big Ten Network
WGN radio internet coverage.

Game Preview: Indiana
by Jonathan Hodges

It's the week before the calendar flips to November, and the Northwestern Wildcats (5-2, 1-2) are essentially in crunch mode as they head to Bloomington to face a team that seems to always play the 'Cats close, the Indiana Hoosiers (4-3, 0-3).  Both teams need a win here to stay in bowl contention, and both teams feature strong passing-focused offenses with playmakers at the skill positions.  The question is: can anyone play defense?

The Wildcats played admirably against the top 10 Spartans a week ago in Evanston, but finally fell behind on the scoreboard with just two minutes left to play.  Northwestern must recover from this loss as well as their loss in the game prior in order to get back in the win column.  Indiana, meanwhile, got beat down against Illinois thanks to a strong defensive effort from the Illini that included two interception returns for touchdowns.  They are looking to put together enough healthy guys on some units (offensive line and secondary, in particular) in order to hang onto hopes for a return to bowl eligibility.

While Northwestern has played a relatively weak schedule so far, they hold nothing to Indiana, who got all 4 of their wins in non-conference play against some of the worst competition imaginable.  In fact, the Hoosiers' strength of schedule ranks 118th nationally according to the Sagarin Ratings and the teams they have beaten have won just 4 cumulative games against FBS foes (all from the Sun Belt Conference).  It makes Northwestern's 110th ranked slate and opponents' 6 combined wins over FBS teams look a little more respectable.

As mentioned earlier, both teams dearly need a win in order to get into bowl contention, especially since 7 wins will likely be needed to lock up a bid with 10 Big Ten teams still legitimately in the hunt for bowl eligibility this season.  And both teams have relatively rough finishing stretches as they both face some combination of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Penn State along with their respective in-state rivals (who are both in the bowl berth fight as well).  This scenario closely resembles last year, when game served as what was essentially a bowl elimination game.

To say this game will be a pass-heavy matchup would be an understatement as it features two top-25 passing attacks and two top-40 total offenses.  NU QB Dan Persa and IU QB Ben Chappell are both generally underrated passers who rank second and third, respectively, in the conference in total offense.  Neither team runs the ball all that well (Northwestern averages 3.2 yards per carry; Indiana: 3.3), so both are almost wholly dependent on the passing game in order to move the offense along.

The scales may tip, though, on defense, where Northwestern holds a respectable edge over Indiana in most statistics despite facing and generally containing some decent offenses (biggest accomplishment to date: bottling up Michigan State's running game last week).  Indiana, meanwhile, hasn't really been able to stop anyone and ranks 91st nationally in scoring defense, giving up over 30 points per game, including allowing 34 to Arkansas State in a close two-point win just two weeks ago.

But while Indiana looks overmatched in many areas, one needs only to look at the recent history of these two teams to see how evenly matched they are.  Last year's one-point Northwestern win required a school-record 25 point comeback in order to pull off the win after falling way behind early.  In 2008, Indiana pulled off a significant two-point upset in Bloomington after NU QB CJ Bacher and RB Tyrell Sutton both went out with injuries.  All in all, the last 6 matchups have been decided by an average of 3.8 points per game with two of those being decided in overtime.  History indicates that this will be a close game.

A lot will be on the line on Saturday as these two teams lay it all on the line on their respective quests to reach the postseason.  Things will get much tougher for each of them down the stretch, so they both know how important it is to take this game.  Expect an entertaining and hard-fought game with a lot of passes, which should provide great programming for the Big Ten Network, as this is the only football matchup on the BTN this week.

Opening Line

Northwestern by 3.

Who Should Win

Northwestern.  The offenses are essentially a draw.  But the 'Cats hold the edge on defenses, as they've actually been able to contain teams this year, particularly passing offenses.  NU ranks a decent 45th in passing efficiency defense while IU ranks a rather miserable 104th, which sure won't help their cause against a QB like Dan Persa.  Also, a variety of Indiana injuries have depleted some of the relatively thin depth they already had, while Northwestern has stayed relatively healthy throughout this season.  And to add to all of that, Northwestern is 7-2 in Big Ten road games since the beginning of the 2008 season.

Upset Factor

Unfortunately, one of those 2 Northwestern Big Ten road losses since '08 came against Indiana.  The Hoosiers have quite a potent offense and have managed to give the NU D fits in recent times, as IU has averaged 30.9 points per game in their last 10 meetings with Northwestern.  Indiana has talented receivers in addition to Chappell at QB, and they've also pulled off enough trickery to make them dangerous against NU the past couple of meetings.  They know their collective back is against the wall for this season, and they'll likely throw it all out there to try and improve their bowl chances.

What to Look for: Northwestern Offense vs. Indiana Defense

The NU offense has done a solid job this season, but has two primary weaknesses: red zone turnovers and closing out games.  On the year, Northwestern has 5 red zone turnovers, most of which occurred in the shadow of the goal line.  And over the past two games, the Northwestern offense has been unable to muster a game-winning drive despite holding the ball with a chance to go-ahead late.  And the reasons behind those two issues have been well documented: a general inability to run the football and pass protection issues with the offensive line (NU ranks 113th nationally in sacks allowed).

Northwestern fans saw a glimmer of hope in the running game, though, as both Adonis Smith (4.4 yards per carry) and Mike Trumpy (5.0 yards per carry) put up respectable numbers against Michigan State, combining for 94 yards on the ground and 0 (yes, that's a zero) yards lost.  Dan Persa continued his elusiveness on the ground, accounting for all 3 Northwestern TDs in the game and running for 81 yards after removing sacks.  Finally, the 'Cats finally got a long run from scrimmage, a 29-yard end-around from Venric Mark, something that will likely continue to be included in the NU arsenal at the very least as a decoy.

The Wildcats couldn't ask for a much better opponent on defense in order to get back into the win column, though, as IU ranks 106th nationally in sacks and 107th nationally in TFLs, meaning the 'Cats' offensive line should have an easier time keeping defenders out of the backfield.  And Dan Persa must be licking his chops to put his 8th ranked 164.3 pass efficiency rating up against Indiana's 104th ranked pass efficiency defense (147.5).  The Hoosiers are allowing 7.6 yards per pass attempt, while the 'Cats are raking in a nice 9.0 yards per attempt, meaning that NU should be able to move the ball through the air with relative ease.

And that's without even considering the ground game: Indiana ranks 84th nationally in rushing defense and is giving up 5.5 yards per carry.  Expect the 'Cats to have one of their most balanced games of the season, as both Smith and Trumpy will be given ample opportunities to try and win the game on the ground.  Even if that doesn't work, the aforementioned pass numbers heavily favor the 'Cats.  This combination should help alleviate the two major issues affecting the NU offense, although everyone knows it all comes down to execution on Saturday.

On defense, Indiana features a trio of solid linebackers, including senior Tyler Relpogle, who leads the team in tackles with 50.  The 'Cats would be wise to avoid senior WR-turned-safety Mitchell Evans who leads the team in both interceptions (3) and pass break-ups (2); he was forced to switch positions after IU experienced significant attrition in the secondary: although there is a large amount of seniority on defense for the Hoosiers, the starting experience prior to this season just isn't there.  Finally, the defensive line has been lacking severely after Indiana lost seniors Greg Middleton and Jammie Kirlew to graduation.

This game presents an excellent opportunity for the Wildcats to move down the field early and often while also getting their running game in gear.  The best thing that NU can do is play disciplined football and avoid costly errors that they've experienced over the past few games like getting behind the chains on penalties and turning the ball over in the red zone.  If they can do that and continue executing as they have all season, led by Persa, expect good things come Saturday.

What to Look for: Northwestern Defense vs. Indiana Offense

The Northwestern defense has played a lot of bend-but-don't-break D so far this season: they rank a not-so-great 67th in total defense (yielding 371.1 yards per game) but sport the 40th ranked scoring defense, giving up 20.7 points per game.  They've only given up more than 30 points once this season: last week against MSU where NU decided to contain the run at the expense of the passing game.  Don't expect a similar game plan this week as Indiana presents the inverse of last week's dilemma: IU averages 313.6 yards per game through the air as Chappell has thrown over 300 yards passing in 4 of 7 games so far this year.

Speaking of Chappell, here's how his stats, specifically TDs and INTs, break down in terms of wins and losses this year:

Indiana Wins (4): 13 TDs, 0 INTs
Indiana Losses (3): 4 TDs, 6 INTs

As mentioned earlier, the quality of opponents has played a significant role in those numbers, with the 4 wins coming over a mix of rather bad teams and the 3 losses coming against Big Ten competition.  Needless to say, generating turnovers by interception is key to beating Indiana.  Fortunately, Northwestern ranks 20th nationally with 10 INTs on the year and, outside of last week, have generally done a nice job stopping opponents' passing games.

The thing it looks like the 'Cats won't be able to do is get to Chappell in the backfield: IU ranks an impressive 17th nationally, giving up just 1 sack per game, while Northwestern is near the back of the pack at 72nd in sacks, averaging 1.7 per game.  The Hoosiers' pistol offense formation allows them to keep Chappell closer to the line of scrimmage in order to see things in the passing game a little different/better and also have a threat of a running game.

Unfortunately for Indiana, though, their top runner, Darius Willis, is out with an injury sustained recently.  They miss him, too, as he still leads the team in rushing by 51 yards despite missing approximately half of the season with an injury.  After he went out, they have had to resort to even more passing, and not always necessarily with the best results.  His backup Trea Burgess does provide some running threat (4.1 yards per carry) but not enough for the 'Cats to dedicate essentially all the LBs to contain the run game like they did against MSU last week.

The thing that the Hoosiers do possess is a quality receiving corps.  Damarlo Belcher, Terrance Turner, and Tandon Doss all have over 35 receptions on the year and all average over 10 yards per reception and provide solid receiving threats over the entire field.  Doss is also used quite often in end-arounds and other non-traditional running plays; he has 16 carries on the year (and has a long of just 19 yards, but is still a threat that must be accounted for).  The NU secondary, which was successfully attacked last year, will have their work cut out for themselves against Indiana's passing game.

It will be interesting to see if Mike Bolden gets more playing time at CB at the expense of senior Justan Vaughn as he did for much of last week against MSU.  Although neither played particularly well, it was clear that Fitz was willing to go with other options when the starter wasn't playing well, no matter how long they have been with the program.  It is notable that on the other side Jordan Mabin recorded 3 pass break-ups last week, a trend that will hopefully continue (and maybe turn into some turnovers).

Expect the Wildcats to play nickel defense a good deal and drop linebackers back into coverage early and often instead of dedicating more personnel to contain the ground game.  Things will go very well if the 'Cats can force some Indiana mistakes either by covering well in the secondary or by getting pressure on Chappell.  Also, the coaching staff knows that the NU secondary must be prepared for this game and it will be interesting to see if that preparation throughout this week works come Saturday.

What to Look for: Special Teams

NU K Stefan Demos rebounded nicely last week against the Spartans, hitting all 3 of his XPs and both FGs in some heavy wind while also booting kickoffs pretty well and making a big return-saving tackle on a kickoff.  After that, he's a more respectable 10-of-15 on the year for FGs and 18-of-21 on XPs, with one of each being blocked.  Indiana, meanwhile, has had to resort to redshirt freshman Mitch Ewald after their opening day starter Nick Freeland was injured.  Ewald, though, has been up to the challenge and is 8-of-9 on FGs and has hit all 21 XP tries.  If the game comes down to field goals, NU's opponent once again seems to hold the edge.

In the kicking game, Northwestern is improving, especially on returns.  The 'Cats rank 68th nationally on kick returns and have jumped up to 74th nationally in punt returns after getting a spark last week from Venric Mark (Hunter Bates had a nice return, also).  NU will get an opportunity to do something on kickoffs, as IU's kick return defense ranks 107th nationally.  In the punting game, though, Indiana effectively limits returns by punting short: while they rank 17th in punt return defense, their net punting is an ugly 112th, averaging just 31.9 yards per punt.

On the other side, NU continues to have success in the coverage game, ranking 39th in net punting (37.9 yards per punt) and 11th in punt return defense.  On kickoffs, Demos has kicked 6 touchbacks on the year and the 'Cats rank a respectable 24th nationally in kickoff return defense.  This will be helpful against an Indiana squad that features punt and kick return teams that rank in the top half nationally (53rd and 25th, respectively).  The speedy Tandon Doss generally handles both types of returns and presents a solid threat every time he gets his hands on the ball.

Last week, Northwestern did a solid job on special teams (minus MSU's successful fake punt, which was against the regular defense), and that trend must continue, especially in a must-win road game.  The return teams also present some promise for the 'Cats, who haven't had a legitimate threat there for essentially 5 years.

Miscellaneous Notes

Northwestern Road Support

NUMB will be making its annual away game appearance at Indiana this week, and a contingent of students and alums will also be there to support the 'Cats as well.  Expect to see a nice-sized NU crowd there to cheer on the team.

Third Down Conversions

Expect a lot of third down conversions on Saturday as NU ranks 13th nationally with a 50.0% rate and Indiana ranks 17th with a 49.5% rate.  Fortunately, the 'Cats face a much easier proposition in terms of the opposing defense as Indiana ranks 61st allowing 38.6% to be converted, while the 'Cats defense is amazingly 11th nationally, allowing a 30.4% rate.  It will be interesting to see if the NU defense can still get off the field against Indiana's offense.


On the year, the Wildcats are 3-0 when winning the turnover battle and are 2-2 when either tied or behind in turnovers.  Indiana follows a similar trend, going 2-0 when winning the turnover battle and 2-3 when either tied or behind.  It's fair to say that whoever can win the turnover battle will likely come out ahead on Saturday.

More Methodical Drives

If you love long, methodical drives, this is the game to watch on Saturday.  On the year, 26.5% of NU's drives have been 10 plays or longer, ranking them 1st nationally in that category, while the Hoosiers rank 4th nationally with a 23.8% rate.  Also, both teams generally avoid three-and-outs and rank in the top 30 nationally in the fewest such offensive drives.  Also, NU and IU rank 60th and 61st, respectively, in Football Outsiders' Offensive Fremeau Efficiency Index, a measure of offensive efficiency adjusted for opponent and removing garbage time.

Injury Report


LB Roderick Goodlow (knee, out for season), OL Evan Luxenburg (knee, doubtful), RB Scott Concannon (groin, doubtful), RB Jacob Schmidt (ankle, questionable).

We'll know more when Northwestern's official injury report comes out later this week, but the most significant injuries against Michigan State were Schmidt and Hampton, with both coming out of the game for some length of time (Schmidt for the remainder of the game after the play in which he was fumbled/injured).  While Schmidt is a versatile back who has been good at short yardage carries, blocking, and receiving, Mike Trumpy and Adonis Smith seem to be running the ball better than him right now (and with more ball security), so don't be surprised to see him on the field for limited snaps even if he turns out to be healthy.  True freshman Hampton got a bit dinged up but is essentially on the third string of the DL, and isn't listed on the injury report.  And there are some other bumps and bruises that likely won't show up on the report (Stefan Demos has a bruise on his leg from a tackle and Hunter Bates has an undisclosed ding) since they stayed in the game last week.  Overall, the 'Cats are still in rather good health.


RB Darius Willis (leg, out for season), RB Nick Turner (concussion, questionable), K Nick Freeland (hip, questionable), OL James Brewer (ankle, questionable), DB Lenyatta Kiles (groin, questionable), S Chris Adkins (ankle, out), OL Josh Hager (knee, out for season), DB Richard Council (knee, out).

The Hoosiers have been dinged up quite a bit, particularly at OL where they have lost two starters in recent weeks, as well as the defensive backfield where they had some offseason attrition in addition to injuries during the season.  Also, their most dangerous running threat, Willis, is out for the year and one of the backups, Turner, is dinged up.  Plus, their solid placekicker is out, leaving a redshirt freshman to take care of those duties.  Injuries in all three phases present opportunities for the 'Cats to get favorable matchups against backups.


Northwestern 34, Indiana 26

I fully expect this one to fulfill all the predictions of a shootout, but I predict the 'Cats to come out on top, avoiding their first 3 game losing streak since September 2007 and attaining bowl eligibility for a fourth consecutive season.  Northwestern will generate turnovers and take advantage of them in order to seal this game.  It should be an entertaining contest, though, with plenty of gun-slinging and some trickery thrown in there for good measure.  And it won't be easy for the 'Cats, since road games almost never are, as they must stay focused on the task at hand and put together a full 60 minutes of execution - something they haven't done for weeks.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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