By Kevin Sweeney
The beginning of Northwestern football’s schedule for the 2019 season is nothing short of brutal. Road trips to three potential top-25 teams as well as home tilts against perennial Big Ten contenders Ohio State, Michigan State, and Iowa in the season’s first seven games leaves very little room for error if the ‘Cats are going to repeat as Big Ten West champions.
The month of November, in comparison to the first two months of the season, is a bit lighter. Conference games are never easy, especially on the road. However, on paper, taking on Indiana, Purdue, UMass, Minnesota, and Illinois to close the year is the stretch of schedule where Northwestern will have to run up wins.
That stretch gets started with a trip to Bloomington to take on the Hoosiers, who are looking to get over the hump and reach a bowl game after consecutive 5-7 finishes to open the Tom Allen era.
Here’s how the teams match up:
Northwestern Defense vs Indiana Offense
Like several of the teams our site has previewed this offseason, Indiana still has significant questions to answer at the quarterback position despite being less than two weeks away from the season getting underway. Allen and new offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer have three different QBs competing for the starting spot. The incumbent is Peyton Ramsey, a two-year starter for the Hoosiers whose results have been mixed so far. Ramsey is an accurate passer, but struggles to stretch the field and struggled with turnovers at times. Previous backup Michael Penix and Utah transfer Jack Tuttle both have bigger arms and perhaps higher upside, but Ramsey is the “safe” choice here. However, if he struggles, there’s a very real chance that Penix or Tuttle winds up the starter by the time the ‘Cats get to Bloomington.
Regardless of who the quarterback is, DeBoer and Allen hope to jumpstart an offense that simply wasn’t dynamic enough last season. Among the 11 qualified starting quarterbacks in the conference last season, Ramsey ranked 9th in yards per attempt, and as a whole the offense was 80th nationally in yards per play. The return of sophomore running back Stevie Scott is a big boost, a sturdy back who ranked in the top 5 in the conference in rush attempts, yards, and rushing touchdowns. Nick Westbrook, Donavan Hale, Whop Philyor, and Ty Fryfogle all return as pass-catchers for whoever takes over at QB.
However, with just two starters returning on the offensive line, the strong Northwestern defensive front should be able to put constant pressure on the quarterback. Slowing Scott and making the Hoosiers one-dimensional would go a long way in shutting down this Indiana attack.
Northwestern Offense vs Indiana Defense
The good news for the Indiana defense? They return a lot of contributors from last season.
The bad news? Those contributors gave up over 420 yards per game last season. After two seasons calling the plays defensively, Allen has given up those duties in favor of Kane Wommack, the son of former Ole Miss DC Dave Wommack. The strength of the defense should be in the secondary, with three starters and plenty of talent returning in that unit. A major key for Northwestern this season is finding receivers who can consistently create separation, and they will be tested in this one.
Where Northwestern should be able to attack is on the ground. The Hoosiers were 10th in the Big Ten in rush defense last season, conceding over 180 yards per game to opposing ball-carriers. That includes a 353-yard debacle against Maryland and another 257 against Michigan. The Hoosier defense will face a steady dose of Isaiah Bowser in this one, and slowing down the sophomore back will be key if IU wants to hold serve at home.
Northwestern 28, Indiana 17
This game may not be pretty. Conditions in the midwest in November can wreak havoc on a game, and neither team profiles to be overly dynamic on the offensive side of the ball. This game will be decided on the ground, and I’ll give the edge to the ‘Cats there. The Hoosiers struggle to move the ball and NU outlasts IU.