EVANSTON IL - OCTOBER 23: Dan Persa #7 of the Northwestern Wildcats runs against the Michigan State Spartans pursued by Greg Jones #53 at Ryan Field on October 23 2010 in Evanston Illinois. Michigan State defeated Northwestern 35-27. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Dan Persa; Greg Jones
2010 record: 5-2 (1-2)
2009 record: 8-5 (5-3 Big Ten), lost to Auburn in Outback Bowl
2010 Sagarin: 67 (IU is #103)
2009 Sagarin: 61
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (5th season, 32-25)
Series: Northwestern leads 43-34-1
TV: noon, Big Ten Network
An IU loss to Northwestern on Saturday would not mathematically eliminate the Hoosiers from postseason contention, but for all practical purposes it is very difficult to construct a scenario in which IU reaches the postseason without beating the Wildcats at home. Northwestern is no pushover, but the schedule toughens considerably after this week: Iowa at home, at Wisconsin, Penn State in DC, at Purdue. IU is a 3.5 point underdog tomorrow. IU likely will be a prohibitive underdog in all remaining games. The only possible exception is Purdue, but IU has struggled at Purdue in the last 15 years. It's an exaggeration to say that tomorrow's game is the entire season, but not by much.
Northwestern began the season 5-0, with wins over Vanderbilt, Illinois State, Rice, and Central Michigan, and a come-from-behind road win at Minnesota, the worst team in the Big Ten. Since then, the Wildcats are on a two-game losing streak. They lost a home night game to injury-riddled Purdue and blew a big lead last weekend at home against Michigan State.
Much like IU, the Wildcats are an offense-oriented team.IU and NU are nearly even in total offense. IU averages 416 yards per game, NU 419. The Wildcats are a pass-heavy team, averaging 290 yards in the air and 147 on the ground, but not nearly to the extent that IU is. Quarterback Dan Persa has been excellent. He is completing 75 percent of his passes, has thrown 10 TD passes to 3 interceptions, and also leads the team in rushing with 341 yards. He is a huge part of the NU offense. The leading non-QB rusher is Mike Trumpy with 197 yards. Much like Ben Chappell, Persa's passing stats have dropped off a bit in Big Ten play, although NU's middling non-conference schedule was tougher than IU's. He didn't through a touchdown pass against either Purdue or MSU. On the other hand, he ran for three touchdowns against Michigan State. Persa certainly is a dual threat quarterback and will provide a challenge to IU's defense, which hasn't handled such quarterbacks well this year.
Defensively, the Wildcats are near the bottom of the Big Ten, allowing 371 yards per game (only IU, Minnesota, and Michigan are worse). This is not a shutdown defense, and it seems likely that after rough outings against Ohio State and Illinois, Chappell will have the chance to rebound. The problem, of course, is that IU's defense will be facing a much more formidable threat than the Illinois offense. The IU defense played reasonably well against Illinois. Of the 11 Illinois possessions that occurred before the white flag punt halfway through the fourth quarter, the IU defense had allowed three touchdowns and two field goals. Only two of those five Illinois scoring drives were long drives. All other Illinois points to that point had come on short fields or directly from turnovers. Was this improvement by the defense, or simply a reflection of the Illinois offense? I suppose we will find out tomorrow.
No matter the records, the IU-Northwestern game has been extremely competitive. The teams have played 6 times from 2002 to present, and while NU holds a 5-1 advantage in that time, every single game has been decided by 7 or fewer points and/or in overtime. No IU game of the last couple of years has been more disappointing that last year's blown 28-3 lead. Few games have been as disappointing for Northwestern as NU's 2008 loss in Bloomington to the worst IU team I have ever seen. Each team believes it needs this one. Each team believes it owes the other some payback. If recent history is any guide, this one will be decided late in the fourth quarter. Because I can't bear the alternative...Indiana 38, Northwestern 34.