Post-Game Analysis: Indiana
by Jonathan Hodges

It wasn't pretty, but the Northwestern Wildcats (6-2, 2-2) found a way to pull off a 20-17 road win over Indiana (4-4, 0-4) in order to reach bowl eligibility for the fourth consecutive season.  Despite allowing 373 total yards, 308 of those through the air, the 'Cats held Indiana scoreless for almost the entire second half, only allowing an Indiana TD with 44 seconds remaining; Northwestern's recovery of the ensuing onside kick secured the game for the Wildcats.

This game was supposed to be an offensive shootout featuring a ton of passing.  There was a ton of passing (84 attempts between the two teams), but the passers weren't as accurate as they have been in earlier games this season (64.3% completion rate for NU QB Dan Persa and 55.6% rate for IU QB Ben Chappell).  Persa was harassed for much of the day (being sacked 2 times and hurried 6 more times), but he managed to make some big plays, including setting up a game-tying FG just before halftime and hitting WR Jeremy Ebert deep for a 30 yard TD in the third quarter to give the 'Cats a lead that they wouldn't relinquish.

The 'Cats certainly didn't start out well, going three-and-out on their first two possessions, with penalties and dropped passes holding back the NU offensive attack.  Indiana got things going early, though driving inside the NU 5 yard line on their first drive thanks to a slew of short passes.  But the Wildcat D held and forced an IU field goal.

The Northwestern offense finally got moving late in the first quarter, as they methodically marched down the field, getting some help from an Indiana facemask personal foul on a third down to get them into the red zone.  Two plays later, Persa eluded the pressure and found Ebert running across the end zone to put the 'Cats ahead early in the second quarter, 7-3.

On the ensuing drive, the 'Cats would generate the only takeaway of the game, a Hunter Bates interception.  Although NU couldn't turn that turnover into points, it would continue the trend of being undefeated on the season when winning the turnover battle.  And while the 'Cats didn't sack Chappell all day, they did put pressure on him, forcing some bad throws thanks to 5 QB hurries while also preventing big plays (Indiana gained just 5.7 yards per pass attempt, with the Hoosiers' longest two completions coming on their final last-gasp drive).

With the Northwestern defense keeping everything in front of them, the Hoosiers did what they had to do after being stuck on their own 3 yard line after an NU punt, by driving 97 yards on 16 plays that was capped with a Chappell dive for the end zone to put IU up 10-7 with under a minute before halftime.  The Wildcats had two timeouts, though, and were insistent on getting more points on the board before the half.

After completing a short pass down the middle to Drake Dunsmore, Persa used his feet to set up a 38 yard pass to Mike Trumpy, who was streaking down the sideline uncovered, to get the 'Cats into the red zone.  NU would get flagged for a costly offensive pass interference penalty on the next play, but Persa once again made a nice play to find Demetrius Fields to get the ball to the Indiana 6 yard line with just one tick left in the first half.  Stefan Demos nailed the FG to tie up the game going into the half.

After forcing an Indiana punt, NU took over at its own 13 and drove down the field methodically, per usual, and capped it off with the aforementioned 30 yard Persa to Ebert TD pass on a third down and 15 to gain.  That put the 'Cats up by a more comfortable 17-10 margin, although the 'Cats know that no lead is a total comfort until the clock hits 0:00.

The teams traded 5 punts, some good and some bad, but the 'Cats would strike again early in the fourth quarter.  In Indiana territory on 2nd and 11 to gain, Persa would dive for a 3 yard gain but was shaken up on the play, getting his wind knocked out of him and getting his ribs dinged according to the broadcast, and would leave the game for the rest of the contest.  It was up to redshirt freshman Evan Watkins to help the 'Cats secure this key road win.  Watkins started strong by hitting Ebert for a 13 yard gain on the very next play, moving the chains and putting NU into field goal range.  The 'Cats were happy to stick to the ground game and let Demos hit a 45 yard FG to give the Wildcats a two score lead in the fourth quarter.

Speaking of the ground game, that's exactly what Northwestern used on their next possession in order to run down the clock and give the Hoosiers very little chance of a comeback.  And for the first time since Tyrell Sutton's 114 yard rushing performance in the 2008 Alamo Bowl, the Wildcats would get a 100 yard runner as Trumpy gained 110 on the day (with a nice 5.2 yards per carry) that definitely helped them put this one away.  Northwestern dominated the rushing yard total 155-65, with 45 of those yards coming on this drive that lasted almost 5 minutes and forced IU to burn all of their timeouts.

Indiana hit a 27 yard pass quickly (which was their longest pass of the day to that point), but after three incompletions, Chappell found Duwyce Wilson streaking down the middle for a 39 yard TD on fourth down, bringing the Hoosiers to within 3 with 44 seconds left in regulation.  Indiana had to go for the onside kick, but their kicker failed to get the bouncing ball to go 10 yards downfield, and NU took over as the ball dribbled out of bounds.  All it took was a knee, and the 'Cats escaped with their 6th consecutive road win, their longest such streak since 1929-31.

Fortunately Persa has a week to shake off his injury in order to prepare for another crucial game in his home state of Pennsylvania against a struggling but still dangerous Penn State squad.  Look for Dan to get himself out on the field no matter what it takes in order to play in what will likely be his only trip back to his state of origin.

And while the 'Cats continued to make mistakes (including 8 penalties for 69 yards), they did enough to pull off the win, featuring the aforementioned 100 yard performance on the ground from Trumpy.  NU also made some nice plays in special teams, with Demos quietly hitting his fourth consecutive FG after his tough-luck misses against Purdue.  Northwestern must quickly shift its focus to the Nittany Lions as they hit the road again next week, seeking a seventh win that would all but lock up a third consecutive bowl appearance.

Player of the Game

Northwestern WR Jeremy Ebert (5 receptions for 98 yards and 2 TDs)  Ebert was clearly the go-to receiver on the day and hit paydirt twice on Persa throws in order to propel the 'Cats to victory.  Although Trumpy had a very nice game and deserved consideration for this honor, Ebert's scores were vital for the Wildcats, and he should be in solid contention for all-Big Ten honors come the end of the season.

Northwestern Honorable Mentions

RB Mike Trumpy (21 carries for 110 yards, 3 receptions for 54 yards)  Trumpy led all players with 164 all purpose yards and became Northwestern's first rusher with over 100 yards in a game in almost two full seasons.  He had his opportunity thanks to NU's two score lead late in the fourth quarter on a drive where he picked up 36 yards on the ground to eclipse the century mark.  He also had a very nice reception at the end of the first half to get NU within scoring range.

K Stefan Demos (2-of-2 XPs, 2-of-2 FGs including a 45 yarder, 68.5 yards per kick average with 2 touchbacks)  Demos quietly and confidently came out and hit two key field goals, including a long 45 yard FG into the wind that would prove to be the game-winning score.  He also performed well on kickoffs, giving his coverage team a chance to keep Indiana pinned deep.

LB Bryce McNaul (13 total tackles, 2 TFLs)  Although McNaul did have a costly pass interference penalty, he led NU in tackles and did a nice job helping keep the Hoosiers bottled up for most of the day.  On the day the 'Cats allowed just 2 plays of 20 or more yards, both coming on Indiana's final drive, which very much helped the NU defense get off the field without allowing a score for most of the day.

What to Work on

Penalties:  In every game this season except for the opener against Vanderbilt, the 'Cats have had more penalties and penalty yards than their opponent and are averaging 7.5 per game for 66.2 yards.  Indiana got 3 of their first downs thanks to NU penalties, and the 'Cats put themselves behind the chains more than once thanks to these costly errors.  NU must correct these errors with four tough games left on the slate and needing to win at least one more to secure a bowl berth.

Points off Turnovers:  Through the first four games of the season, Northwestern generated 53 points off of turnovers.  In the subsequent four games, NU has scored 0 (yes, zero) points off of turnovers.  That's another reason that the 'Cats have had to sweat out their two victories in that span while also losing two close ones.

Protecting Persa:  He's been sacked 36 times so far this year, a wholly unacceptable number given that the 'Cats are clearly a pass-first team.  Even Indiana was able to muster some significant pressure on the NU QB even though they came into the game ranking near the bottom of the nation in sacks.  The only upside of this game is that NU was able to generate some yards on the ground, but the caveat to that is Indiana's porous run D.  The 'Cats will need to do a great job on the line next week against an always-tough PSU defensive front (in fact, every remaining NU opponent has a very tough defensive line).

Random Observations

Third Down Conversions:  Northwestern converted 55.6% of their third downs, allowing them to extend drives that included four 10+ play drives (three that turned into scores and one that helped bleed the clock late).  Indiana, in the absence of big plays for much of the day, needed a high rate of conversions but couldn't match the 'Cats as they netted a conversion rate of just 37.5%, a big reason that NU was able to come out on top.  Note that the Wildcat D didn't allow an Indiana third down conversion in the second half (on six attempts).

Turnovers:  This was the first game of the season during which NU didn't have a turnover.  The 'Cats won the turnover battle 1-0 and are 4-0 on the year when winning the battle.  Indiana moved to 0-4 when losing the turnover battle, and are now 0-4 in games where Chappell has at least one INT.

Bowl Positioning

Now that the 'Cats have reached bowl eligibility, time to start looking at bowl considerations.  Check out the HailToPurple Bowl Page for further details, but I'll focus on what has happened on the field and what needs to happen here.

The Big Ten has 8 guaranteed bowl spots this season (with a possibility for 9 if the conference gets two teams into BCS games, which is a strong possibility).  Minnesota has already been eliminated from bowl contention.  Indiana, with a tough remaining slate, is close to being eliminated, and Purdue has a shot but has been obliterated over their past two games, dropping their chances.  If the two teams from the state of Indiana drop three more games each, NU would be assured of a bowl berth.

Some of NU's biggest competition for a bowl spot will be Illinois, Penn State, and Michigan; note that NU does still play the former two, giving the 'Cats a chance to earn a spot on the field of play, much the way they did last year against Wisconsin.  Penn State has an interesting closing stretch with 4 of their final 5 games at home, including their matchup against Northwestern next week.  Illinois has to go on the road 3 times but could realistically win out.  Michigan faces a tough stretch but they, too, could conceivably reach 7 wins by the end of the year.

The key for Northwestern down the stretch will be to win games.  Getting a win in Happy Valley next week will be crucial as PSU is in the pack with the 'Cats right now.  We'll know a lot more after this evening and next week's slate of games, but don't be surprised to see the battle for bowl spots come down to the final weeks of the season.

Final Thought

Despite not looking sharp for most of the day and allowing a lot of yards, the 'Cats took care of business on the road and got the ground game moving pretty well.  The Northwestern D kept most everything in front of them and special teams took care of things on the way to NU reaching bowl eligibility once again.  And once again the 'Cats played in a tight ballgame, but this time Fitz made sure that his team came out on top.  Now it's time to move into Fitz's time of year: November, where he sports a 9-4 record.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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