Game Preview


Memorial Stadium
Saturday, October 29, 2011. 11:00 am CDT
WGN 720 AM Radio 

Game Preview: Indiana
by Jonathan Hodges

The Northwestern Wildcats (2-5, 0-4) will have a prime opportunity to right the ship and notch their first Big Ten win of the season as they travel to Bloomington to face the Indiana Hoosiers (1-7, 0-4) who have yet to win a game against an FBS opponent under first year head coach Kevin Wilson. During its five game losing streak, the 'Cats have lost by an average of 9.6 points per game and have been in every game into the fourth quarter with just a handful of plays deciding each contest. Indiana, on the other hand, have an average margin of defeat of 16.1 points per game in their seven defeats, including an average of 31.3 in each of their last three games. Though they seem to be finding a semblance of an offense with true freshman QB Tre Roberson, they rank 107th in total defense and 118th (second-to-last) in rush defense and look to be a long way away from that elusive first FBS win.

But, they certainly know that this is likely their best shot at a win before the year is done (they must still visit Ohio State and Michigan State along with a rivalry game against the now respectable-looking Purdue Boilermakers) and they have played Northwestern extremely close as of late: NU has won six of the last seven meetings but NU's scoring margin in those games is just 3.1 points per game. Plus, there was that infamous upset in 2008. After suffering through the worst stretch of games since Fitz's first season, though, the Wildcats will certainly take nothing for granted here.

Indiana's defense is only slightly better than Northwestern's from an overall standpoint, though NU's pass defense continues to be porous (ranked 104th nationally in pass efficiency defense) which will certainly give the Hoosiers a shot to upset the 'Cats unless Northwestern can put together a full 60-minute effort on defense. Fitz made wholesale personnel changes last game (some due to injury, some due to performance, plus additional changes during the game) so expect to see adjustments until he finds something that works.

And, on the other side of the ball, Northwestern will be waiting to see if Dan Persa is available to start after experiencing a turf toe injury (to his left foot, the opposite leg relative to his Achilles' tendon injury), as he was listed as questionable early in the week. But, NU doesn't look to be in too bad of shape with him out, as Kain Colter continues to provide a speedy threat to the opposition as he continues to lead NU in all-purpose yards (83.6 per game) and has been valuable behind center leading the run-heavy portion of the offense. And, with Indiana's defense allowing 224.4 yards per game on the ground, the opportunity for NU to run its way to victory is right there.

Look for a tough battle between two desperate teams both wanting to notch their first Big Ten win of the year and to stay out of the Big Ten basement on Saturday that will likely feature a good amount of offense and relatively little in the way of defense.

Opening Line

Northwestern by 9.5.

Who Should Win

Northwestern. The 'Cats are reeling in terms of wins and losses, but the fact is that NU hasn't been that far away in any of their games, with a handful of costly plays (costly swing-point turnovers, in particular) coming back to bite them. Indiana, meanwhile, just doesn't have the talent or depth (in particular) to compete and are falling apart at this point thanks to massive attrition due to injury and players leaving the program. Though the NU pass defense is particularly bad, the 'Cats at least have some personnel to adjust and fared rather well in the second half against PSU. Indiana, on the other hand, just can't stop the bleeding with opponents averaging 5.4 yards per carry on the ground and 1.6 rushing TDs per game; they just don't have the personnel on defense to slow down anyone at this point.

Upset Factor

Indiana has played Northwestern very close in recent games, even if NU has a significant edge in the win column, and as the 'Cats have seen this year it only takes a couple of plays to tip things the other way. The accurate Dan Persa has made a couple of very costly errors over the last two games in which his interceptions caused large momentum swings that essentially took points off the board for NU and resulted in touchdowns for their opponents (both games resulting in 10 point losses). Indiana will be able to move the ball on offense, particularly through the air, and if they can get a big play (i.e. takeaway), the Hoosiers are certainly capable of grabbing a win here.

What to Look for: Northwestern Offense vs. Indiana Defense

Northwestern's game plan may very well depend on the status of Dan Persa's aforementioned left foot (turf toe) injury: if he is able to go, expect to see much of the same offense that the 'Cats have run over the past four games with Persa in for most plays as the passing quarterback but rotated out for Colter for some plays in order to invigorate the ground attack (Colter had a nice 46 yard run against PSU that set up his own touchdown run). If Persa can't go, it will be interesting to see if the 'Cats stick with the same 2 QB system but with redshirt freshman Trevor Siemian in place of Persa, or if they go with a Colter-only offense like NU ran in the first three games of the season (during which they went 2-1 against much lesser competition).

In either case, expect to see a good amount of Colter carries as he's the Wildcats' primary weapon on the ground (leading NU in rushing yards with 421 and averaging 5.5 yards per carry even with sacks included), while the Hoosiers have had problems stopping the run (118th, or 2nd to last nationally in rushing defense and allowing over 5 yards per carry). It would also certainly behoove the 'Cats to get some production out of their running backs, but unfortunately the loss of Mike Trumpy for the season has begun to hurt NU: Adonis Smith didn't have any carries in the PSU game due to an undisclosed injury/issue while true freshman Treyvon Green got almost no production with just 11 yards on 8 carries. Hopefully Green can bounce back and Smith can get healthy in order to take advantage of the potential for a big day on the ground. Despite the issues at RB, though, Northwestern is still ranked a respectable 49th nationally in rushing offense (just under 170 yards per game).

On the other side of the ball, Indiana is still searching for answers (much like NU's defense) as they have started 22 different players on defense so far this season and
currently have four freshmen (three true freshmen) in the starting defensive lineup. The Hoosiers have had significant issues against the run, as mentioned earlier, but also aren't significantly better against the pass: ranking 109th nationally in pass efficiency defense and 107th in total defense (438.6 yards per game allowed). Opponents are also averaging better than 2 TDs per game through the air (and that's when they decide to throw the ball, which has been just 36.3% of the time).

The Hoosiers' most consistent weapon on defense has been fifth year senior MLB Jeff Thomas, who leads Indiana in tackles (58), TFLs (8.5), and is second on the team in pass break-ups with 3. Redshirt sophomore Greg Heban has also been reliable with 6 passes defended to lead the Hoosiers (2 INTs and 4 PBUs) and is also second on the team in tackles. DT Adam Replogle is the biggest pass rush threat: he has an impressive 34 tackles (given that defensive tackles rarely make that many tackles) and leads the team with 4 sacks on the year. Worth noting is that true freshman Mark Murphy will be making his second consecutive start at safety; the name may be familiar to 'Cats fans, but his father (Mark Murphy) is the safety that played for the Green Bay Packers NOT the same Mark Murphy as Northwestern's former Athletic Director (and former Green Bay Packers President & CEO) who played safety for the Washington Redskins in the NFL (who knew that there have been at least three Mark Murphys who have played safety).

Whether Persa plays or not, expect plenty of running from the Northwestern offense that is certainly ready to take the weight off of the passing game after experiencing costly interceptions in each of the past two weeks along with 10 sacks allowed over that same period (NU is 114th nationally in sacks allowed). The key to a win here will be avoiding a costly turnover while also methodically driving and putting points on the board throughout the game.

What to Look for: Northwestern Defense vs. Indiana Offense

After some early experimentation, Indiana has gone to true freshman Tre Roberson at quarterback over redshirt sophomores Edward Wright-Baker and Dusty Kiel (whose younger brother, Gunner, a highly prized QB recruit - ranked first nationally at the position by some services, famously committed then de-committed last week from Indiana). Roberson is a dual-threat QB who performed well last week with 197 passing yards (66.7% completion rate) and another 84 on the ground (5.2 yards per carry) running the spread offense with plenty of read option plays to emphasize his ability to run. Northwestern has had some issues with mobile quarterbacks (Army's Trent Steeleman and Michigan's Denard Robinson, to name a couple), especially when dedicating a number of resources to contain them on the ground and allowing them to go wild in the passing game (Robinson plus Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase fall into that category).

NU is somewhat fortunate that WR Damarlo Belcher will not be able to go for the Hoosiers with an injury, as he is their top receiver this season (25 receptions) and has hurt NU in the past over three career games (22 receptions for 229 yards and 1 TD). But, Indiana is not devoid of talent at WR as true sophomore Kofi Hughes has picked up the slack and is tied for the team lead in receiving yards (286) and TDs (2); Duwyce Wilson offers another tall receiving threat as he shares the lead in receiving TDs, as does ture freshman Cody Latimer (another 6'3" receiver). Indiana has certainly seen the tape on the NU pass defense and will likely try to utilize these taller receiving threats against the NU secondary early and often.

Though Indiana has struggled to move the ball (84th in total offense) and put points on the board (99th in scoring offense) they have players capable of explosion plays, and NU is certainly familiar with being burned by such plays. After a dismal first half a week ago, NU settled down in the second half against PSU, allowing just 91 total yards and just one score (on a short field thanks to the interception return). It will be interesting to see who takes the field for the NU defense, as Damien Proby remains the listed starter over David Nwabuisi (one of Fitz's changes in last week's game, though Nwabuisi did come in and tie for the team lead in tackles as a backup), and David Arnold remains listed at starting safety (though Jared Carpenter played in a large portion of the game).

The Northwestern DL has reverted back to its former starting lineup (Tyler Scott listed as starting DE after a stinger kept him out vs PSU and Vince Browne back as the starter on the other end), and it will be interesting if they can contain Indiana's running attack better than they did PSU (who averaged 5.2 yards per carry, which raised NU's season average allowed to 4.3 without accounting for sacks). Kevin Wilson remains dedicated to running the ball despite some attrition at that position (detailed in the injury report later) with Indiana running the ball just over half the time and having enough success to rank near the middle nationally with 144.1 yards per game; Roberson should help bolster their running game as well. Sophomore Stephen Houston leads Indiana on the ground with 426 yards and a 4.6 yards per carry average, though they mix in D'Angelo Roberts and Matt Perez as well to keep the unit fresh.

NU is certainly more comfortable defending against the spread relative to the power running/play action attacks of Iowa and PSU, and if they can force Roberson to throw the ball, they will be in a much better position given that he is a true freshman and will likely make a mistake or two. If the defense can replicate its performance over the second half of last week's game while also getting some health (hopefully) in the form of Scott and Bryce McNaul, it should increase their chances of doing that.

What to Look for: Special Teams

Northwestern has seen some stellar special teams performances (Boston College) and some dismal ones (Army), and last week was a bit of a downswing considering that the 'Cats were poised to pick up some "hidden yardage" in the return game based on paper. But, as they say, the game isn't played on paper and instead NU saw themselves get behind the proverbial chain on returns with PSU picking up some nice gains on kickoffs while NU's Venric Mark literally dropped the ball multiple times, constraining NU's kickoff return game (to just 17.8 yards per return); the net result was -10.2 yards for the 'Cats relative to the Nittany Lions.

To fix that, NU needs to get back to what it was doing earlier in the year on blocking and get Mark to catch the ball first before doing what he does best: run. The Wildcats still rank 11th nationally in punt returns and although they've fallen back a bit on kickoffs, everyone knows Mark has the ability to take it to the house. Indiana has allowed a good bit of punt returns (16, compared to just 4 for Northwestern) and their net punting ranks 90th in the nation. On kickoff returns, they are 50th, allowing 20.7 yards per return.

On the other side, the 'Cats have maintained solid coverage teams despite troubles last week (though it's worth noting a forced fumble and recovery on the opening kickoff certainly got things started on the right foot): 27th nationally on kickoff return defense and 6th in the nation on punt returns (0.75 yards per return allowed). Indiana ranks low in both categories (109th and 89th, respectively) and this will hopefully yield relatively poor starting position. As in previous weeks, NU P Brandon Williams must work to eliminate shanks from is repertoire as they are costing the 'Cats valuable field position and putting the D in more precarious positions.

Finally, to the kickers: NU's Jeff Budzien got over .500 on FGs for his career as he made a 25 yarder against PSU (he's now 4-of-7) while maintaining perfection on extra points (27-of-27 for his college career). Indiana, though, has a proven commodity in Mitch Ewald, who has hit 82.8% of his 29 career FG tries and is perfect on 54 XPs. With this series almost always featuring close games, these two kickers may receive some attention; in NU's case, hopefully Budzien has recovered from some early career woes.

Miscellaneous Notes

Coaching Storylines

Former Northwestern Offensive Coordinator (under Randy Walker from 1999-2001) Kevin Wilson is seeking his first head coaching win over an FBS and Big Ten opponent, and would certainly like to beat his former employer. Wilson was the guy who implemented the spread offense at NU and took it to the next level at Oklahoma before grabbing his first head coaching gig. Pat Fitzgerald, on the other hand, is still looking to climb up to second on the NU head coach all-time win list to equal the aforementioned Randy Walker at 37 W's, after having been stuck on 36 for the past five games.

Prior to this season Northwestern and Indiana swapped offensive assistant coaches. Current Indiana WR coach Kevin Johns left Evanston after holding that position from 2004-2010 (he was also an offensive graduate assistant at NU from 1999-2001, when Wilson was the OC), while NU took in former Indiana Assistant Head Coach and Running Backs Coach Dennis Springer after Johns left.

Finally, former NU running back Noah Herron (2001-04, NU's fifth all-time leading rusher with 2,524 yards) is currently Indiana's offensive graduate assistant after concluding his professional football playing career.


NU's ability to rush the passer has been key this season: Northwestern is 2-0 when it has more sacks than its opponent and is 0-5 when it has the same number or fewer. This fact has been obvious as of late: NU generated zero sacks from the second half of the Illinois game through the first half of the Penn State game, during which time its opponents averaged 23 points per half of play (which would, of course, translate to 46 points per game, and alone would rank 118th nationally in scoring defense). Somewhat thankfully, they are facing an Indiana team that ranks 94th nationally in sacks allowed (2.6 per game) meaning that the opportunity is there for NU to disrupt the Hoosier offense; if they can succeed, success in the overall game seems much more likely.

Similar Offenses

Although NU is on its third offensive coordinator since Wilson left the staff, the scheme is much the same as it was when he left in terms of the spread with the option mixed in to bolster the run game. Interestingly, Indiana's offense should be familiar to NU (at least compares to what it looks like minus Persa): a young run-first QB (Colter and Roberson) without a feature RB due to injury (NU's Mike Trumpy and Indiana's Darius Willis are out for the year) and with an RB by committee approach (both teams have 5 players with 35 or more carries) and a spotty offensive line despite some experience (NU: 2 seniors, 2 juniors, 1 redshirt freshman who have allowed 3.4 sacks per game; Indiana: 2 seniors, 1 junior, 2 freshmen who have allowed 2.6 sacks per game). With both teams facing each other's respective porous defenses, it will be interesting to see how similar their performances look on Saturday.

Injury Report


RB Mike Trumpy (out for season, knee), WR Tony Jones (doubtful, leg), DE Tyler Scott (questionable, stinger), LB Bryce McNaul (questionable, back)
, QB Dan Persa (questionable, turf toe).

Unfortunately, Northwestern expereinced a couple of dings over the past week, with Scott getting a stinger during practice forcing him to sit out against PSU (he was indeed missed with NU having its worst showing of the year against the run). McNaul was also out with a back injury. Finally, and likely most importantly, Persa came out with an injury to his left foot (on the opposite leg relative to his Achilles' tendon injury) and was listed as questionable on Monday, though Fitz noted he was walking around and feeling better though he is in a walking boot.


WR Damarlo Belcher (doubtful, knee), S Chris Adkins (doubtful, knee), DB Donnell Jones (questionable, ankle), DE Bobby Richardson (questionable, concussion), QB Dusty Kiel (questionable, ankle), S Jarrell Drane (out, ankle), K Nick Freeland (out for season, knee), OL Josh Hager (out for season, knee), RB Darius Willis (out for season, knee).

Not listed here are numerous departures from the team due to various disciplinary or personal reasons, another huge obstacle that Head Coach Kevin Wilson has faced while trying to turn around the Hoosier program. In addition to those departures, Indiana has faced a significant number of injuries to some key players, which has severely hampered their chances with an already depleted roster. The key losses have been RB Willis, who was lost at the beginning of the year, and the lingering injury to Belcher, their top receiving threat.


Northwestern 35, Indiana 31

The Wildcats and Hoosiers will continue the trend of close games in this series as both are able to put up big offensive numbers against each teams' relatively porous defenses. Whether Persa plays or not, NU will focus on the ground game and will find success there; meanwhile, Indiana will try to do more of the same but will find more success through the air with Roberson. But, in the end, the 'Cats will finally get that big swing play to go in their favor as they grab a key takeaway and/or gain an edge in the return game that propels them to a close win, keeping their very dim bowl hopes alive.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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