Northwestern QB Dan Persa.
2010 record: 7-6 (3-5), lost to Texas Tech in Ticket City Bowl
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald, sixth season, 34-29
Series: Northwestern leads 44-34-1
TV: Noon, TV TBA
IU hosts Northwestern for the second consecutive year when the Wildcats travel to Bloomington for IU's homecoming on October 29. The IU-NU series has been, since 2002, IU's most competitive series, but also one of its most lopsided. NU has won 6 of the last 7 matchups, but every single game has been decided by less than a touchdown. Frankly, there have been so many heartbreakers that they all blend together. The most brutal games of the series have been the last two trips to Evanston. In 2007, IU was 6-4 and could have assured a bowl bid had they held on to a 14-3 early lead at Ryan Field, but the infamous Ben Chappell pick six on a throw that the coaching staff should never have allowed him to make spurred the Wildcat comeback. That was a minor setback compared to 2009, when IU built a 28-3 lead and held on until NU pulled ahead with a field goal in the final minute. IU's only win since 2001 was in 2008, when a horrible IU team somehow upset NU's best team since the mid 1990s, and prevent the Wildcats from winning 10 games in a season for the first time.
What makes this current trend so disappointing is that the Wildcats are the only Big Ten team that the Hoosiers have any reasonable chance of catching in the all-time win loss standings. After Bill Mallory won 9 in a row against the Wildcats from 1985-1993 (IU's longest winning streak against any Big Ten opponent, incidentally) IU was within three games of tying the series, but NU has gone 10-3 against IU since its homecoming upset of the Hoosiers in 1994.
But enough about the history of the Big Ten's two least storied programs. What about the 2011 Wildcats? Pat Fitzgerald hasn't had a losing season since 2006, and the Wildcats offset last year's 3-5 Big Ten record with a 4-0 non-conference performance, and qualified for bowl games in three consecutive years for the first time in program history (although they still haven't won a bowl since the 1949 Rose Bowl). Quarterback Dan Persa was outstanding in 2010, completing 73 percent of his passes, 258 yards per game, and 15 TDs to 4 interceptions. He missed the last two games of NU's season after rupturing his Achilles tendon, but he is back this year, and NU even is hyping him for the Heisman. Persa also runs quite a bit. He gained 321 yards and had 9 rushing touchdowns last season as well. Mike Trumpy is the leading returning running back. He gained 510 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2010. Presumably, Trumpy will need to carry a bigger part of NU's offensive load if the Wildcats are to improve in 2011. Persa's favorite target, WR Jeremy Ebert, returns after gaining 953 yards and catching 8 TDs last season. Tight end Drake Dunsmore, who gained 381 yards and caught 5 TDs, also returns. Demetrius Fields (291/2TD) also returns, so Persa will have an experienced group of receivers.
Northwestern had a rough season defensively, ranking 97th in FBS in total defense. The Wildcats should be thankful that Wisconsin hung 83 points on the Hoosiers, because that game has rendered NU's 70-23 loss to the Badgers a mere footnote. The Wildcats return most of their key contributors on defense, including safety Brian Peters, and defensive ends Kevin Watt and Vince Browne.
Recent history tells us to expect a close game with a gut-wrenching ending. Of course, I have no idea what to expect from the Hoosiers, but over the last decade, even the worst IU teams have found a way to stay in games with Northwestern. Any outside chance of bowl eligibility probably requires, as I have said before, three wins out of the four home games against Virginia, Illinois, Northwestern, and Purdue, assuming no stumbles. This is a big game for the Hoosiers, and hopefully the streak of competitive games will continue, but with a different ending.