Think Northwestern has struggled recently? Indiana has been even worse. The Hoosiers, like the ‘Cats, have dropped five in a row, and are just 1-7 overall. With some of the worst offense (98th in points per game) and defense (103rd in points allowed per game) in the nation, the Hoosiers have played poorly all season. Northwestern is considered by most to be the better team, but still will need to win these key matchups to pull out a win in Bloomington.
Dan Persa (Northwestern QB) vs. Dan Persa’s health
When Chicago’s (former) Heisman candidate is in the game, Northwestern looks like the bowl-caliber team many foresaw coming into the season. But when Persa exits the game due to injury – as has been the case several times this year – it often leads to a Wildcat breakdown. Persa’s exit this past week against Penn State due to turf toe led to a stalled Northwestern drive deep in Penn State territory. Persa is set to play this week following the injury against the Nittany Lions, but his ankle will be heavily taped. He may be more hesitant to scramble as that was how he was injured against Penn State, but that should be fine with Coach Fitz and the rest of the ‘Cats if it means Persa stays in the game. Northwestern will need Persa to stay healthy if they going are to beat the Hoosiers.
Damarlo Belcher (Indiana WR) and Kofi Hughes (Indiana WR) vs. Northwestern secondary
The ‘Cats secondary has struggled against opponents’ top receivers, sometimes in spectacular fashion (think A.J. Jenkins of Illinois on Oct. 1). Penn State’s Devon Smith caught six passes for 110 yards and a touchdown, pretty big numbers from a receiver who had just ten receptions this season coming into the game. Neither Belcher nor Hughes has been overwhelming this year: each has 286 yards receiving, and the two have a combined 3 touchdowns this season. But the Northwestern secondary clearly has not been overwhelming, either.
Stephen Houston (Indiana RB) vs. Northwestern front seven
Houston has been one of the few bright spots for the Indiana offense this year, totaling 426 yards and four touchdowns on 92 carries this season. He has been getting better as the season has progressed, totaling a season-high 135 yards rushing against an outstanding Wisconsin team two weeks ago and two touchdowns last week against Iowa. Penn State running back Silas Redd tore apart the ‘Cats run defense last week, averaging 9.1 yards per carry on his way to a touchdown and 164 yards. Northwestern has allowed a 100-yard rusher in four of their last five games, all of which were losses. If the ‘Cats are going to pull out the victory on the road, it starts with stopping Houston.
Adam Replogle (Indiana DT) vs. Brandon Vitabile, Brian Mulrose and Ben Burkett
Replogle has been a force on the Hoosiers’ defensive line all season. The junior defensive tackle has recorded four sacks – a high total for an interior lineman – and also made 5.5 tackles for loss this year. Meanwhile, the Wildcats’ line has allowed 24 sacks this season, although that number may be irregularly high due to Persa’s and Kain Colter’s penchant for scrambling. Still, the ‘Cats have allowed the most sacks in the Big Ten, a cause for concern. Northwestern’s line may need to double-team Replogle in order to prevent him from wreaking havoc. If they can do that, the ‘Cats offense will be able to exploit a weak Indiana defense.