Game Preview


NU at Indiana
Memorial Stadium
Saturday, Oct. 25.  11:00 am CDT
TV: Big Ten Network
WGN radio internet coverage.

Game Preview: Northwestern vs. Indiana
by Jonathan Hodges


Northwestern (6-1, 2-1) will head to Bloomington to face a reeling Indiana Hoosiers squad (2-5, 0-4) that has now lost five consecutive games and looks to be falling apart with its last 2 losses coming by margins of 36 and 42 points (to Iowa and Illinois, respectively).  Meanwhile, NU will be looking to essentially lock up a bowl berth with its seventh win of the year and to establish itself as a middle to top tier Big Ten team with the home stretch approaching.  But, as any good Wildcats fan knows, one should never count on anything and this game may turn out to be a tough contest, and Northwestern must focus on the task at hand by executing its game plan and building on what began in last week's win over Purdue.

The Wildcats will look to keep the offense rolling after racking up 48 points on Purdue in what was easily their best offensive performance of the season.  Bacher will be looking to avoid mistakes (he's 11-0 when throwing under 2 interceptions in the game) and should be poised to do so as Indiana has only ONE interception on the season, while Sutton will be looking to continue his productivity on the ground (just under 100 yards/game and 5.5 yards/carry).  On defense, the 'Cats have shown the ability to grab turnovers (14 in their past 4 games, including 5 each against Purdue and Iowa) and must continue that trend to kill any hopes the Hoosiers have of an upset.  And if Indiana goes to Chappell at QB, Northwestern must give him a rude reminder of what happened in his lone throw against the 'Cats last year in Evanston: an interception returned for a TD.  The DL must continue its standout performance by creating pressure up front on both passing and running plays, and their duties are even more amplified now that Arrington will be missing in the middle.

Meanwhile, Indiana will be trying to right the ship after just about everything has gone wrong this season.  The Hoosiers have lost 5 straight and have given up 40+ points in 4 of those games, while scoring just 15.6 points/game over that span.  While their offensive numbers aren't horrible (they are averaging 387 yards/game of total offense, just under NU's 389 yards/game and good for 46th nationally and 4th in the conference), the Hoosiers are having a horrible time translating those yards into points; they are ranked next to last in the conference and 83rd nationally in scoring offense putting up only 22 points/game.  While things haven't gone their way, the fact is that they still have playmakers; Lewis is a dual threat QB that is their best offensive weapon (see his injury status below), Thigpen is a dangerous all-purpose runner (he ranks 15th nationally in all-purpose yards/game, averaging 161), Fisher and Means provide solid receiving threats, and Payton contributes a different style running threat from Lewis and Thigpen (the 3 of them have pretty evenly split carries this year).  On defense, Indiana lost a slew of defensive backs either to graduation (Porter and Majors) or injury (Phillips), but they still have some heavy hitters, like transfer DL Finch, LB Mayberry, DL Middleton, and sack-master DL Kirlew (he has 6.5 sacks on the year so far).  The defense has obviously not performed well this year, but they are just a year removed from ranking 8th nationally in sacks (3.2/game).

Overall, this is a game in which the Wildcats are favored heavily, despite the loss of a key player and leader on the defense and playing the game on the road.  As one can see from recent years, including this one, though, anything can happen in the world of college football, and Northwestern must be prepared to play at their best to take down Indiana, who are seeking for any win they can get, especially on homecoming.

Northwestern by 8.5.

Who Should Win: Northwestern, easily.  Indiana looks like the worst team in the Big Ten this season, and NU just dispatched what is probably the next-worst team, Purdue, by 22 points.  The Hoosiers' OL is having problems while the NU DL is wreaking havoc; CJ Bacher's best games come when he avoids INTs, and Indiana seems unable to force any this year (1 in 7 games); Indiana can't seem to put points on the board while they can't seem to stop anyone from scoring; Northwestern just put upt its best offensive performance of the year and had 5 takeaways on defense.  The ingredients all seem ripe for NU to produce a bowl-sealing seventh victory of 2008.

Upset Factor: It's a road Big Ten game, Northwestern has been known to "play down" to its opponents, and, hey, it's college football.  Indiana has playmakers on offense (Lewis, Thigpen, Fisher) and some big hitters on defense (Mayberry, Kirlew), and will be hungry for a victory on homecoming.  The Wildcats also have 6-1 Minnesota and 7-1 Ohio State on the horizon, so don't count out the look-ahead.  While it's unlikely for Indiana to pull off the upset, NU must stay focused to avoid the loss.

What to Look For:

Northwestern Offense/Indiana Defense: Indiana's defense hasn't really been able to stop anyone this year, particularly in its last 5 games (when opponents have averaged 40 points/game), and ranks near the bottom in some of the major statistical categories (108th in pass efficiency defense, 85th in total defense, 83rd in rushing defense, and 100th in scoring defense).  While NU must be wary of the DL, particularly Kirlew, there isn't particularly much that's frightening about the Indiana defense.  The secondary isn't particularly good (as evidenced by the pass efficiency defense numbers and the fact that they've only had one interception on the season, and it was against FCS/I-AA opponent Murray State), and the LB corps, while featuring some solid hitters, has been forced into a bind.  The Wildcats should be able to move the ball and score on this team.  Meanwhile, NU's offense finally awoke from its slumber against Purdue, putting 48 points on the board with contributions from many players (Bacher, Peterman, Sutton, Conteh, Mitchell, and Stewart all accounted for scores), and should continue the trend against Indiana.  Bacher must continue his success when avoiding the interception bug (he's 11-0 as a starter when throwing fewer than 2 interceptions), and NU must take advantage of Sutton by running the ball early and often; the 'Cats seemed hesitant to utilize the ground game to run down the clock with a big lead against Purdue.  Also, CJ must continue to run the ball, whether he likes it or not (he was quoted in the Daily this week that he didn't like to run that much), as it helps keep the defense honest, especially when the DEs crash hard.  Overall, this is a game where NU must keep the offense rolling against a relatively weak defense, especially with a ball-hawking defense like Minnesota (1st in the nation in turnover margin) and a high caliber team like Ohio State coming up.

Northwestern Defense/Indiana Offense: Northwestern's defense has come up big in its Big Ten wins over Iowa and Purdue, forcing 5 turnovers in each game, and it must continue to do the same against Indiana's offense.  Northwestern is also wreaking havoc up front, averaging 3 sacks/game (to lead the conference) and the defensive pressure must begin there with Indiana's OL a bit banged up and showing a subpar performance so far this year.  The most obvious issue for the NU defense is the MLB position, where sophomore Nate Williams gets his first collegiate start after the 'Cats lost Arrington for the year against Purdue; Williams filled in nicely during the remainder of the Purdue game and he will be tested early and often with Indiana's running game, which is ranked 32nd nationally at 183 yards/game (albeit those statistics were a bit inflated by their wins over 2 FCS/I-AA opponents).  While the Wildcat defense last season was able to muster just enough to defeat Indiana in Evanston, this year's squads have headed in opposite directions: NU's D upward, and Indiana's offense downward.  The Hoosier offense will likely move the ball well, as mentioned earlier in this analysis, and the key will be shutting them down in the red zone and generating turnovers.  A lot will depend on the availability of Lewis and how healthy he is; he is an obvious running threat from the QB spot, while Chappell is more of a drop back passer, which means the NU D must be prepared for two different animals behind center.  Thigpen is fast in space and NU must beware when he has the ball, and Fisher provides a downfield receiving threat.  The tools are there to make waves, so the Wildcat defense must shut them down early.

Special Teams: NU's special teams play was much improved against Purdue, with kickoff returns being handled nicely by Simmons, who returned from an ankle injury to average a nice 25.3 yards/kickoff return.  Brendan Smith has taken over full-time punt returning duties and had 4 returns for 18 yards, but Fitz noted in the Monday press conference that the punt return game is improving and Northwestern is just a block or two away from breaking one.  On the flipside, the NU coverage units showed vast improvements from their lackluster performance against MSU; NU allowed only 16.8 yards/kickoff return against the Boilers and didn't allow them to return a punt (2 were inside the 20 from the foot of Demos).  The Wildcats must continue this trend in order to keep Indiana deep in their own end and force them to drive the length of the field.  In the kicking game, Villarreal hit 5-5 XPs (the final XP was handled by senior backup Daley) and 2-3 FGs; reliable numbers, although he has missed some make-able kicks this year (against Iowa and Purdue).  On the other sideline is K Starr, who has NFL level talent, although he has slid a little this season (much like the rest of his team) and is 16-17 on XPs and 7-11 on FG attempts, but the fact is that he has excellent range and is a reliable kicker.  The next biggest threat to concern NU is the aforementioned Thigpen, who has game-breaking return speed, so the coverage units must be on top of their game.

- Northwestern's 2-deep has one big change due to the season-ending injury to MLB Arrington, which has propelled Nate Williams to the starting spot with Mike Dinard as his backup.  McNaul will back up one of the OLB positions.  Also of note is that Andrew Brewer has re-emerged on the depth chart as a 3rd string slot receiver after being absent for a few weeks.
- Attendance: Northwestern will find that Ryan Field's attendance, while a bit disappointing, will actually look good when compared to Memorial Stadium in Bloomington.  Indiana hasn't beaten an FBS/I-A team this season and support is dwindling, especially with basketball season quickly approaching under the Hoosiers' new coach Tom Crean.  Although it is homecoming, don't expect to see a hopping stadium with the season already essentially in the dumpster.  Also, look out for a contingent from NUMB making the road trip down to the game to watch an NU game out of uniform (but still in purple).
- Series History: This is the only Big Ten team against which NU has an all-time series lead, and NU has won every game against Indiana since a 2001 drubbing at the hands of Randle El in Bloomington (which was also the last collegiate game in which Damien Anderson played).  Last year's 31-28 win in Evanston gave NU it's 6th win of the year.

Injury Report:

Northwestern: SB Dunsmore (out for season, knee), CB Vaughn (out for season, shoulder), LB Rejae Johnson (out for season, shoulder), LB Arrington (out for season, knee).

Indiana: QB/WR Lewis (questionable, high ankle sprain), WR Doss (questionable, leg), CB Phillips (out for season, knee).

The Wildcats were hurt with their biggest loss of the season in the injury category in the Purdue contest with LB Malcolm Arrington going down for the year after a knee injury.  While the Sun-Times reported that Arrington will be seeking a medical hardship waiver to gain permission to play another season, the most pressing issue for NU will be covering the senior's starting spot in the linebacking corps.  Taking over that duty will be sophomore Nate Williams, and backing him up will be senior Mike Dinard (who has some starting experience of his own at LB).  McNaul will get a bump up the depth chart and will back up one of the OLB positions.  Fortunately, Williams has garnered a good amount of playing time as a backup in the LB rotation and on special teams, so he should be prepared to step in despite the loss of one of the team's top tacklers and senior leaders.

On Indiana's side, the biggest question mark is QB/WR Kellen Lewis, easily the Hoosiers' biggest offensive weapon, who has been sidelined with a high ankle sprain.  Lewis missed last week's game against Illinois but has practiced this week and Indiana coach Lynch said that he is "hopeful" Lewis will play.  Even with him healthy, Indiana has moved Lewis over to play WR at times this season (in a Randle-El-esque role) with Ben Chappell at QB.  So, the 'Cats must be prepared to see Lewis on the field and deal with wrinkles in the offensive game plan.

Prediction: Northwestern 28 - Indiana 16

I have set a high bar on my prediction for this game, after nailing the 31-28 final score in my prediction for last year's Indiana game.  While I expect this game to be a little closer than many 'Cats fans will expect (since most expect to see a blowout), NU should be able to pull out the victory with the help of a staunt defense and an offensive performance that will take advantage of mistakes and good field position to put points on the board.  Again, Indiana will likely move the ball on Northwestern, but the D will stiffen in the red zone and will come up with turnovers when necessary to secure the victory.  A win here will allow 'Cats fans to exhale a bit, as the 7th victory of the year should all but secure a bowl bid, and allow NU to focus on the next big task: a trip to surprising Minnesota.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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