The 2011 Indiana-Northwestern game marked the end of an era. From 2002 through 2010, every game between IU and Northwestern was either in doubt in the final minute or decided in overtime. That streak ended on October 29 in Bloomington, when the Wildcats answered an opening drive TD by IU with 24 unanswered points, and IU never really challenged again. IU allowed 616 yards of total offense to the Wildcats, almost perfectly balanced between rushing and passing. Northwestern didn't turn the ball over once and didn't punt until the fourth quarter. The tire fire that was the 2011 IU defense was particularly awful that day, and overshadowed a pretty strong offensive performance by IU.
While I am calling this IU's "week 4" matchup, it comes after a bye following the Ball State game. Instead of taking the bye during the Big Ten season, the Hoosiers will have an early off week and then will play at Navy on October 20. That's probably good, because I consider the Northwestern game to be the most important of the Big Ten season. First, because of the bye. Second, it's basically the Hoosiers' only realistic opportunity for an early Big Ten win. After playing Northwestern, IU hosts Michigan State and Ohio State before going out of conference to play Navy. After Northwestern, IU's next non-crazy opportunity for a conference win is at Illinois on October 27. The Hoosiers' eight-game Big Ten losing streak could get much longer if IU doesn't find a way against Northwestern. I discussed this with Lake the Posts in a recent Q&A, but IU and Northwestern always think of each other as their best opportunity for a win.
Of course, Northwestern, despite some historical similarity to IU, has moved well ahead. The IU program still hasn't recovered from the death of Terry Hoeppner. Northwestern, in the six seasons since the sudden death of Randy Walker (Hep's friend and Kevin Wilson's mentor), has steadily improved under Pat Fitzgerald. The Wildcats have now played in four consecutive bowl games. Last season looked like a lost cause when the Wildcats dropped to 2-5, but a four game winning streak that began with the IU win and continued with an upset of Nebraska the next week got the Wildcats to 6-6.
The Wildcats appear poised to continue their string of productive quarterbacks with Kain Colter. Colter, who saw a fair amount of action last year, both as a QB and at other positions, completed 67 percent of his passes and threw 6 TDs and 1 interception. As this excellent SB Nation preview indicates, Colter is NU's top returning passer, rusher, and receiver. Colter ran for 654 yards and 9 TDs last season and caught 43 passes for 466 yards last year. The Wildcats will be facing some inexperience in the backfield. Treyvon Green, who ran for 362 yards and 3.7 yards per carry last season, and Mike Trumpy, who ran for 182 yards and 5.2 yards per carry before an season-ending knee injury against Illinois, are the only real experience returning at running back. With Jeremy Ebert and Drake Dunsmore gone, and with Colter presumably not catching many passes this season, that leaves Demetrius Fields as the only returning contributor as a receiver. The Widcats return 3 of 5 OL starters.
On defense, DB Ibraheim Campbell led NU in tackles as a freshman. Safety Brian Peters led NU with 5 interceptions. They are both back. The Northwestern defense was not particularly good (#80 in total defense), and it seems likely that the offensive orientation of Northwestern will continue.
IU's Big Ten schedule is not favorable. All of the Hoosiers' home games are tough, and all Big Ten road games are tough for IU. Still, given IU's historical competitiveness with NU and the bye preceding the game, it's not unreasonable to think that IU might compete in this game. If not, then it is likely that IU's Big Ten losing streak will extend until the end of October.