The Big Ten is finally coming to Ryan Field this Saturday. Indiana comes to town sporting a 2-1 record, while the Wildcats pursue their second 5-0 start in three seasons. In the Legends Division, Northwestern finds itself tied for first place alongside Minnesota. Meanwhile, Indiana is tied for third and is looking to keep a winning record.
The Indiana passing attack ranks 13th in the nation in passing yards, despite being operated by three different quarterbacks. Sophomore Tre Roberson started the season but broke his leg during their second game of the season. Since then, head coach Kevin Wilson has used a two-quarterback system similar to Northwestern’s.
The Hoosiers still managed to put up 423 passing yards between true freshman Nate Sudfeld and junior college transfer Cameron Coffman last week against Ball State. This spells bad news for a secondary that allows over 290 yards per game through the air. Even though a horrible opening week performance skews the statistic, concern still lingers. The only Northwestern interception of the year came by way of outside linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo against Syracuse. Northwestern will have to do a solid job at putting pressure on the quarterback so Indiana cannot pick apart the secondary. Northwestern only has six sacks this season, one of the worst totals in the country, although they improved their pressure recently. Quarterbacks have only completed 52.7 percent of their passes over the last three weeks.
The Hoosier’s high-octane offense puts up 36 points per game, so the Wildcats will need a balanced run and pass game in order to have some quick strike ability. While the Wildcats average over 200 yards on the ground per game (27th out of 120 in the FBS), the Cats’ passing attack ranks 107th in the nation. Fitzgerald’s offense struggled to put the ball in the endzone in their second and third games of the season; however, in their opener against Syracuse and most recent game against South Dakota, the Wildcats scored seven touchdowns on nine trips to the red zone.
While neither team has faced any powerhouses thus far, Northwestern has had a considerably more difficult schedule. Indiana’s schedule pitted them against the MAC and MVC conferences and Northwestern was tested against the Big East, ACC and SEC. In fact, Venric Mark ran for a career-high 123 yards against the Vanderbilt defense that held a potent South Carolina offense to 17 points in their opener.
Although it is unnerving to see Northwestern’s offense’s one dimensionality, there is no denying its ability to run the ball. Mark is currently the 25th leading rusher in the nation, and he didn’t even play the second half against Boston College. Mark’s quick cutting ability turns heads and his versatility can cause anxiety to any defensive coordinator preparing to stop the junior sensation. One can’t help but compare Mark to Darren Sproles on the New Orleans Saints. Both are dangerous running the ball, but if they catch the ball on a screen or in the open field, watch out. Mark accounts for one-third of Northwestern’s receiving touchdowns, and is their fifth leading receiver. Expect a mix of screens and swing passes to Mark in order to spread out the Indiana defense. If downfield blocking from Northwestern receivers continues to be as good as it has been, No. 5 will find his way to the endzone multiple times on Saturday.
Brandon Williams. Yes, punters are important too. Special teams are one-third of every football game, and a good punt can go a long way in the field position battle. Williams does a fantastic job of pinning opponents deep in their own territory. His punts averaged just under 57 yards last week and he has managed to have teams start inside their own 20 on eight occasions this year. If the Wildcats are inefficient on third down, a ton of responsibility will rest on the shoulders of the junior punter.
Game prediction – Northwestern 33, Indiana 23
The loss of Tre Roberson combined with the Northwestern front seven will be too much for Indiana to handle. In six quarters of play, the sophomore sparkplug passed for over 400 yards and three touchdowns, and rushed 11 times for over 100 yards and three touchdowns. Roberson’s explosiveness will undoubtedly be missed. Now, Northwestern won’t have to load the box or have a quarterback spy, allowing the defense to give more help to the secondary.
Wait, doesn’t Indiana average 36 points per game? Yes, and while the Hoosier offense was productive against Ball State, Northwestern’s defense only allows 18.5 points per game. The Wildcat defense doesn’t do particularly well keeping offenses out of the red zone, but it does a stellar job of holding teams to field goals and turnovers, holding teams to only five touchdowns on 14 trips inside of the 20-yard line. If Northwestern can build on last week with their ability to punch the ball into the endzone, as well as hold the Indiana offense to field goals and punts instead of touchdowns, the Wildcats should improve to 5-0.