By: Adam Braunstein
Fresh off two upset road victories against the Iowa Hawkeyes and Michigan State Spartans, the Northwestern Wildcats are getting ready to play host to the Indiana Hoosiers (3-3) in a game crucial to the ‘Cats chances of making a bowl appearance for the second straight season.
On the offensive side of the ball, Northwestern has looked like a completely different squad the past two games than the team who put up a measly seven points against FCS opponent Illinois State in September. The incredible offensive improvement undoubtedly starts with sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson. It is clear that Thorson is more comfortable in the pocket than he was just a few weeks ago, and this has allowed him to connect on those deep passes that he was missing earlier in the season.
Indiana will bring the tenth best pass defense in the Big Ten into Evanston to try and slow down Thorson. The top player in that Hoosiers secondary is redshirt junior Rashard Fant, who was second in the nation last season with 22 pass breakups. Expect the star-studded matchup between Fant and Austin Carr, who currently leads the Big Ten in just about every major statistical category, to play a huge role in the outcome of the game.
The Hoosiers rush defense has been equally run-of-the-mill. Indiana has allowed a 100 yard rusher in each of its last three games and comes into this matchup ranking ninth in the Big Ten. Justin Jackson, who just happens to be coming off a career game in which he rushed for 188 yards, seems to have a great opportunity to put up those same types of numbers again.
Perhaps the biggest threat to Northwestern getting the win this week is Indiana’s passing attack. Led by junior QB Richard Lagow, the Hoosiers are throwing for over 285 yards per game, good enough to rank 28th in the nation. Despite two Northwestern secondary players correctly predicting and tweeting that they would get an interception before a game, the ‘Cats sky team has had a tough season. Just last week against MSU they allowed 424 yards and four touchdowns through the air. The offense was able to pick the defense up in East Lansing, but improved secondary play will be essential for the ‘Cats on Saturday.
Stopping the run is not expected to be quite as tough for the ‘Cats. Six games into the season, Indiana has just three running touchdowns. Running back Devine Redding is quietly having a nice season, averaging over 90 yards per game, but has struggled to make the big plays. He hasn’t had a run for more than 36 yards and has only found the end zone once. If the ‘Cats secondary can limit Lagow and the Hoosiers passing attack, Redding’s nickel and dime style of play shouldn’t hurt the ‘Cats.
This is a hugely important game for Coach Fitzgerald’s team. Currently sitting at 3-3, Northwestern must win at least three of its final six games to guarantee bowl eligibility. With games remaining against two top-10 teams in Ohio State and Wisconsin, the ‘Cats really need to win all the games they should win. They cannot afford to let another game slip away like they did against Western Michigan and Illinois State.
Expect Northwestern to come away with a hard-fought victory in this one, defeating the Hoosiers by nine, 28-19.