Former Northwestern assistant coach, Kevin Wilson, and his Hoosier squad travel to Evanston for the first time since 2009 to open B1G play and take on the Wildcats. The Hoosiers (2-1) will be fresh coming off the bye week, yet still retain bitterness over the devastating loss against Ball State. Northwestern has failed to concede defeat in their first four contests, including a miraculous one-point win on opening day versus Syracuse. This game opens B1G play for both sides, and if this year’s B1G is anything like it’s been in the recent years, we know nothing is certain.
The Opponent: Northwestern Wildcats
The Wildcats are truly one of the more interesting teams to watch in college football. Not solely because of their skill, but because of their style of play. Northwestern boasts a quarterback tandem consisting of junior Kain Colter and sophomore Trevor Siemian. Kain Colter, who began as the starting quarterback, has a unique history. Last year he spent some time under center while spending other parts as a wide receiver for the Wildcats. He can use his legs— he already has 215 yards in the early part of this season. Siemian is more of a pocket passer with only six rushing attempts this season. With the duo behind center, NU ranks 20th nationally in completion percentage, and is one of just nine teams in the country that has yet to throw an interception this season.
To be fair, the Wildcats don’t pass all that often – they rank 107th in total passing yards – which goes a long way in explaining that stat. Their rushing game, on the other hand, has had a great impact for this Wildcat squad. They currently rank 27th in the nation with 221.3 yards per game with Venric Mark and Mike Trumpy handling the majority of the carries. That dynamic duo, in addition to the quarterback tandem makes Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcat team one of the more distinctive ones today in college football.
Northwestern’s defense carries the same trait as the offense—interesting. Their rush defense is well above average, giving up just 80 yards per game. It is important though, to remember the quality of their opponents thus far. Nonetheless, the rush defense hasn’t had much to worry about with one-third of their season officially complete. Their pass defense, on the other hand, falls in a different category. The secondary has given up an average of 330 yards per game, 11.9 yards per catch, and 6 touchdowns – it has plenty to work on.
X-Factor: Wildcats’ Secondary
For the second straight week, I’m choosing the Hoosiers’ opponent’s secondary as the game’s X-factor. Why would I do that? Indiana ranks 13th in the nation in passing yards, and with the Hoosiers more comfortable with Coffman under center, the passing game will play a big role. Therefore, it will be the Wildcats’ secondary that has to step up.
Cam Coffman – who is healthy enough to play although not 100% – will make the start for Indiana, and the Wildcat secondary will need to be on top of the ball if they want to remain undefeated. They allowed 482 yards against a Syracuse team that finds itself with just one win, and the Wildcats barely escaped with a win. Just like they don’t throw many interceptions, they tend not to force many—only one on the season. Coffman, whose accuracy is remarkable, should fare well against this secondary, whose interception total is surprisingly low considering their win/loss record. It will be interesting to see if the Mike Hankwitz, team’s defensive coordinator, and his secondary can put together some schemes together to reduce the damage from Indiana’s passing game.
Could the Hoosiers have chosen a worse week to have their bye? After a heartbreaking loss to Ball State, the Hoosiers have had not just one week to think about that game and wait for revenge, but a long, drawn out two-week span before the Hoosiers can redeem themselves. But there’s no doubt Coach Wilson has made the bye week a productive one. One player told me he emphasized stopping the run considering their opponent – an intelligent move by Coach Wilson. The bye week also gave extra rest to starting quarterback Cam Coffman who suffered a hip pointer injury in the Ball State game. He went for an MRI, which found no serious damage, and he’s in line to start against Northwestern.
The passing game under Coffman seemed to be efficient, considering this was the first game of the Roberson to Coffman transition. Coffman went 24-35 with 251 yards, and the west coast style offense was favorable for the Hoosiers. Combine that with the emergence of junior running back Stephen Houston, and it’s easy to see where such a great offensive game came from.
However, they fell a bit short. One reason for that – as I wrote in my column two weeks ago – was the four passing touchdowns they allowed, and the plethora of miscommunications that accompanied them. Add in penalties, totaling 127 yards (not just the secondary) and it’s easier to understand why the Hoosiers couldn’t beat the Cardinals.
They have shown everyone who has watched them play they have potential to make big plays and win big games. It’s the consistent 60 minutes that they have to put up in order to win those games. Jimmy Cavanaugh – fellow IUSportcom writer – wrote about the third-quarter collapse against Ball State. Those stretches of poor football can’t happen now that B1G play is starting.
Hoosiers’ X-Factor: Run Defense
I heavily criticized the Hoosiers’ secondary following their game against Ball State. But it’s important to note the run defense didn’t necessarily hold its own either. It gave up 4.7 yards per carry and a total of 206 yards. Now IU is going against a team that averages 221 yards per game, and features two running backs who are exceedingly quick Venric Mark comes in at 5’9, 185 pounds while Trumpy comes in at 6’1, 210 pounds. The Indiana run defense needs to get pressure inside and outside the pocket, clog the lane on the inside, yet keep Trumpy and especially Mark from getting to the outside and turning the corner.
The secondary should have an easier day after hopefully fixing some of its flaws, and I don’t believe Northwestern’s passing game is on the level of Ball State’s (Wildcats rank 107th in passing yards, the Cardinals rank 75th). Therefore, it’ll take some pressure off the likes of Kenny Mullen, Mark Murphy, and Lawrence Barnett. It will be up to the run defense to determine the defense’s destiny (say that sentence 10 times fast).
Before I go on with my prediction, it’s important to know the history of these two teams squaring off against each other. Prior to Northwestern’s shootout victory in Bloomington last year (59-38), the previous seven NU-IU meetings were decided by a total of 26 points (3.7 per game). The ’Cats earned a three-point win at Memorial Stadium in 2010 and in 2009 came back from a 28-3 deficit to defeat IU 29-28 in the largest comeback in Northwestern history.
I went on the radio this week and said Hoosiers would indeed pull off the upset. The week has gone on, and my mind has not changed. Coffman says he’s healthy enough to perform well, and I believe it. If he wasn’t, I don’t think Wilson would have a problem with starting freshman Nate Sudfeld, who did well after Coffman was injured last game. Northwestern’s pass defense has been abysmal against worse opponents than IU. I expect this game to come down to Indiana’s passing offense versus Northwestern’s run offense; Indiana’s run defense versus Northwestern’s pass defense. Which aspect of the game will bend, and which will break? I think Northwesterns’ come closer to breaking, and that is why Indiana wins.