Indiana at NU
Saturday, Sept. 24. 11:00 am CDT
radio internet coverage.
Game Preview: Northwestern vs. Indiana
by Jonathan Hodges
On Saturday, Indiana (4-3, 1-2) visits Northwestern (4-3, 1-2) in what will
likely amount to be a game that is essential for both teams' fading bowl hopes
in this 2009 season. The Hoosiers are coming off of a home win over
hapless-looking Illinois, while the Wildcats are looking to rebound from a loss
against Michigan State, which was yet another game they let get away in the
second half (NU had a second half lead in each of its three losses this
After this game, both teams face very similar schedules, with
the ranked trio of Penn State, Iowa, and Wisconsin on tap for both squads down
the stretch of this regular season. Both NU and IU do have one "win-able" game
left on the slate, though (Illinois for NU and Purdue for IU), making this game
that much more important to reach a bowl-eligible 6-6 record.
Wildcats will also be looking to avenge last year's loss in Bloomington that
likely kept NU out of a January 1st bowl game as IU upset the 'Cats 21-19 on a
day that saw both QB CJ Bacher and RB Tyrell Sutton go down with injuries.
Northwestern does have an all-time 42-34-1 edge over Indiana (the only Big Ten
opponent that NU holds an all-time winning record over), but the last five
contests have been decided by an average of just 4.4 points per
Despite last week's loss, NU's defense has been solid since coming
alive in the second quarter of the Purdue game, allowing just 12 points per game
from the second quarter of that game onwards. And against MSU, NU's defense
held up well outside of a few long passing plays, ironically the same type of
performance that doomed the 'Cats against the Hoosiers last year (two long TD
passes and a short touchdown following a fumbled kickoff).
meanwhile, started the year off strong at 3-0, albeit against lesser
competition, before falling to Michigan and Ohio State in consecutive weeks.
Then, the bottom fell out against Virginia in a 47-7 loss before finding some
redemption against a reeling Illini squad a week ago.
IU's QB Ben
Chappell is the reigning Big Ten offensive player of the week following his 333
yard, 3 TD performance last week. The 'Cats know how dangerous he can be, as he
engineered Indiana's upset win last year; on the year he's thrown for 1,664
yards and 8 TDs, 7 INTs, and sports a 63.4% completion rate.
Wildcats, meanwhile, will try to counter with its biggest offensive weapon, QB
Mike Kafka, who has 1,755 yards on the season along with 7 passing TDs to just 4
INTs (he has also added 4 TDs rushing). Despite having some costly turnovers in
NU losses to Syracuse and Minnesota, he has seemingly turned the corner, putting
together an efficient and turnover-free performance one week ago.
on the recent history in this series and the fact that both teams will be
playing for their bowl hopes, expect an evenly matched and hard-fought game in
Northwestern's homecoming football game.
Northwestern by 5.
Northwestern. The 'Cats have been playing better defense
of late and have demonstrated an ability to contain the run, an important fact
when facing a team whose top two rushers are averaging a collective 4.8 yards
per carry. And despite not being able to "dink and dunk" their way to victory
against MSU last week, the 'Cats have enough offensive weapons in the passing
game to get the job done against the nation's 87th ranked pass defense (in terms
of yards). Having this game in Evanston also gives the 'Cats a
Just look at last year, when
Indiana surprised NU in their 2008 homecoming game thanks to a +5 turnover
margin and some big plays (TD passes of 43 and 28 yards). The Hoosiers have
offensive weapons at the skill positions (WRs Tandon Doss and Damarlo Belcher
along with RBs Darius Willis and Demetrius McCray) and have some bona-fide next
level talent on the DL with Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton, who have combined
for an insane 8.5 sacks and 6 forced fumbles just over half way through this
season. As demonstrated in last year's game, all it takes is a handful of big
plays to tip the scales in one's favor.
What to Look
Northwestern Offense / Indiana Defense:
Wildcats' offense is still searching for the groove NU fans have seen so many
times since Northwestern began fielding the spread offense in 2000. After
starting out the year at a decent clip (31.8 points per game through five
games), NU has totaled just 30 points in the past two contests, despite one of
those games being against one of the nation's worst defenses
Kafka has been NU's biggest offensive weapon this year,
posting a solid completion percentage and accounting for 12 of Northwestern's 22
touchdowns during the 2009 season. And removing sack numbers, he's run for 280
yards on the year, showing that he still has legs that can do damage as
NU's running game, on the other hand, has been the 'Cats' weakness
and was all but abandoned last week against MSU, with NU RBs accounting for just
eight carries on the day. Coach Pat Fitzgerald confirmed this fact following
the game, saying that NU would pass the ball "175 times" if it had to, even if
that's not his preferred game plan.
Much of that is due to Northwestern's
poor offensive line play: NU has yielded an average of 2.43 sacks per game this
year (86th nationally), while Kafka has been hurried another 14 times and has
used his feet to escape pressure numerous other times.
That fact doesn't
bode well against an Indiana team whose defensive strength is on the line, a
line that put the heat on NU last year and will be looking to do so again.
Seniors Middleton and Kirlew will be flying in from the edge (did I mention they
have a combined 20 TFLs so far this year), while underclassmen Larry Black and
Adam Replogle will hold down the middle of a DL that is helping Indiana yield
just 3.7 yards per carry this year.
At the next level, there's LB Matt
Mayberry, who leads IU in tackles with 58 on the season to go with 2.5 sacks, 6
TFLs, 2 pass break-ups, and a fumble recovery.
Finally, in the secondary,
Indiana fields an experienced bunch (all have at least four years in the
program), featuring team interception leader (with two), S Austin Thomas.
There's also converted WR Ray Fisher who has a couple of pass break-ups to go
along with his 33 tackles this year.
The key to this matchup is obviously
in the trenches; Indiana has two huge playmakers on the edges and NU has had
some major problems on the OL this season, so this is likely to be where the
game is won or lost. Assuming Northwestern won't be able to generate much of a
rushing attack (again), pass protection is vital to give the 'Cats any chance to
move the ball on offense.
Northwestern Defense / Indiana
As mentioned earlier, the 'Cats' D has performed fairly well
over the past few games, and that despite DE Corey Wootton missing the majority
of the last two games with an ankle injury, S Brendan Smith going out against
Miami (OH) with a hand injury, and S Brad Phillips leaving the MSU game with a
shoulder injury. The loss of both safeties was definitely a factor in MSU's
successful passing attack a week ago.
Even with those three playmakers
out for NU, the 'Cats boast a few more players who can make a difference, like
NU tackle leader LB Quentin Davie, who has 53 on the season, including 4 sacks,
3 forced fumbles, and 4 QB hurries. CB Sherrick McManis was burned on one play
last week, but has generally been a lockdown corner and leads NU with 3 INTs and
4 pass break-ups.
A major factor in NU's defensive success over the past
three games has been the run defense; even with sacks taken out of the rushing
numbers, NU has been yielding an average of just 111 rushing yards per game over
the last three contests. Credit DTs Adam Hahn and Niko Mafuli for helping to
stuff the run in the middle.
The Hoosiers' offense has been making a
living off of the big play this year, with 26 20+ yard offensive plays. They
also use a lot of deception on offense (as NU learned the hard way last year
thanks to a 28 yard TD toss from WR Mitchell Evans), including some plays from
the pistol formation and their version of the "Wildcat" offense with Evans
taking the direct snap.
Out of the "Wildcat," Evans is averaging 6.2
yards per carry, but he doesn't have to do it alone as he has RBs Willis and
McCray, who both average over 4.8 yards per carry each. Both of those RBs also
have breakaway TD runs of 85 and 59 yards, respectively, something NU will have
to be careful to contain.
There's also the aforementioned Chappell, who
makes some mistakes (7 INTs on the year), but can hit some big plays (6 passes
of 30+ yards this year). He's throwing to a talented WR corps, with Doss,
Belcher, and Evans making significant contributions.
The key to this
matchup again lies at the line of scrimmage. The 'Cats' DL has shown solid
improvement as this season has progressed, and they must continue that trend by
containing the Indiana running game and forcing Chappell into uncomfortable
Northwestern can't give up the explosion play (like they did
last year versus Indiana as well as last week against MSU), either, and will
need to generate some pressure from the DL, who has underwhelmed against Big Ten
competition so far this year.
Stefan Demos has been rather reliable in his placekicking duties, going 19-of-20
on XPs and 9-of-10 on FGs (his only miss was blocked). Unfortunately, the
effects of him handling all kicking duties may be starting to show
Demos is averaging just 35.1 yards per punt and has placed
only 10-of-31 punts inside the opponents' 20 yard line. Northwestern's net
punting is 32.5 yards per punt, putting them at 107th
Kickoffs aren't much better, as he's averaging 61.3 yards per
kick and has just one touchback on the year, and NU's kickoff return defense is
a middle-of-the-pack 20.7 yards per kickoff allowed.
Although the 'Cats
have prevented any big returns so far this year, they aren't exactly sticking
opponents deep in their own end, which hasn't exactly helped NU's defensive
Indiana has two dangerous kick/punt returners in Fisher and Doss:
Fisher is averaging almost 34 yards per kick return and already has a touchdown
return this year, while Doss is averaging 21.4 yards per return. Overall, the
Hoosiers are 24th nationally in kick returns, an area that NU must focus on
containing, especially since opponents have been close to breaking a few against
NU this year.
Indiana's kicker, Nick Freeland, is perfect on 18 XP tries
but is just 11-of-17 on field goals with four of his misses coming on kicks
under 40 yards.
Although Northwestern's return game has been lacking (to
say the least), they'll have an opportunity in this game to get something
going. IU is one spot worse than NU in net punting nationally and is 95th on
kick return defense, allowing 23.5 yards per kickoff.
NU kick returner
Jeravin Matthews had a nice 28 yard return last week (after muffing a kickoff)
and has the speed to break one if he can get a hole. He may get his chance this
This game may very well be decided by a special teams play, and
with both teams having their own respective deficiencies in this phase, there's
definitely the chance of a big play from either
NU Third Down
Conversions: Northwestern is still doing very well converting its third
downs as the 'Cats are 7th nationally in percentage (50.9%) and tied for first
in total number of conversions (59). Indiana, meanwhile, is near the bottom in
third down conversion defense (84th), allowing a 41.6% conversion rate. That
bodes well for the Wildcats building long drives, which is essential given the
type of spread offense that NU runs.
Red Zone Offense: NU is
officially 25th in red zone offense (88% scoring rate), but discounting a late
drive against Towson where NU was intentionally running down the clock and
didn't want to score, the 'Cats have gone 23-of-25 on the year (92%) with 16
TDs. Indiana has been a little less successful, with an 83% scoring rate (61st
nationally) and 11 TDs in 24 total trips.
Red Zone Defense: Both
teams have had success stopping teams from scoring in the red zone; NU is 17th
nationally, allowing just a 73% scoring rate, while IU is an impressive 5th
nationally, allowing a 67% rate. Both teams have allowed just 13 red zone TDs
Turnovers: NU and IU have both had success generating
takeaways, with NU 7th nationally with 18 on the year, while Indiana is 23rd
with 15. Both teams have positive turnover margins on the season. Northwestern
is 3-0 on the year when winning the turnover battle and 1-3 when losing the
battle. IU, meanwhile, is 3-1 when generating a positive turnover margin and
1-2 when falling on the negative side. It's clear that the winner of the
turnover battle will put themselves in a position to win the
Northwestern: RB Alex Daniel
(ankle, out for season), OL Mike Boyle (back, doubtful), DT Jack DiNardo
(shoulder, questionable), LB Bryce McNaul (leg, doubtful), CB Justan Vaughn
(leg, questionable), LB Ben Johnson (hamstring, questionable), S Brendan Smith
(hand, doutbful), DE Corey Wootton (ankle, probable), S Brad Phillips (shoulder,
The season is continuing to take its toll on
the 'Cats. Wootton was limited against MSU and although he's progressing, he
hasn't looked anywhere close to last year's performance. Smith is out with a
hand injury (he doesn't appear on this week's depth chart), while fellow safety
Phillips is "day-to-day" after a shoulder injury at MSU (he had offseason
shoulder surgery, it's unknown if it's that same shoulder).
Vaughn appear on the depth chart as "or" backups, meaning that they may be close
to returning. The key to this game, though, is a solid secondary, and that's
tough to do with less experienced guys in the defensive backfield. Hopefully
Phillips can make it onto the field Saturday because otherwise, redshirt
freshman Jared Carpenter will be thrown into the fire
Indiana: DE Darius Johnson (shoulder, doubtful), DE
Fred Jones (foot, doubtful), LB Leon Beckum (ankle, doubtful), DT Jarrod Smith
(back, doubtful), CB Chris Adkins (elbow, doubtful), RB Zach Davis-Walker (foot,
doubtful), OL Pete Saxon (ankle, questionable).
Indiana is also a bit
banged up on defense, but has mostly lost depth and not necessarily the big
playmakers. Northwestern can take advantage, though, by going on long sustained
drives that can help wear down a D that doesn't have as many guys to rotate in
as they would like.
Prediction: Northwestern 30 - Indiana
Expect yet another close matchup between these two teams in a game
that will likely be decided on a big "swing" play (e.g. turnover or long special
teams return). The 'Cats' D has been rather successful creating big plays as of
late and can likely do just enough to put NU over the top.
NU fans know
not to be too confident, though, as one only has to look to last year's game to
see what can happen even coming into the game as a significant favorite. This
game will be hard-fought and hopefully the 'Cats are the ones who can get within
one win of bowl eligibility and secure their third consecutive home homecoming
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