Finally, after nearly two weeks of stewing, it's time for IU to move on from the Ball State loss and begin Big Ten play with a trip to Evanston to play the Northwestern Wildcats. Northwestern has been a pleasant surprise to date, and one of the Big Ten's few success stories. It hasn't always been pretty or comfortable, but the Wildcats are 4-0 and have defeated three teams from major conferences. The feat isn't quite as impressive as it might sound at first--neither Vanderbilt, Boston College, not Syracuse has a win over an FBS team--but the Wildcats have put themselves in an excellent position and given the Big Ten's struggles, could be in for a major bowl bid if they continue to play well.
The Northwestern bloggers with whom I exchanged questions and answers yesterday were quick to admonish me that Northwestern's quarterback shuffle between Kain Colter and Trevor Sieman isn't a controversy, it's a rotation. Fair enough. Both of them have played very well. Colter has completed 67 percent of his passes and has 2 TDs. Sieman has completed 69 percent of his passes and has a touchdown pass. Neither has thrown an interception. Colter also is the Wildcats' second leading rusher with 210 yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground. Entering the season, Colter was the Wildcats' leading returning passer, rusher, and receiver. He has not caught a pass yet, however. Venric Mark leads NU with 399 rushing yards, 5.5 yards per carry, and 4 touchdowns. Mike Trumpy, seemingly in his eighth year in Evanston, has 121yards and a TD, and a total of five Wildcats have scored rushing touchdowns. Like the Hoosiers, the Wildcats are spreading the ball around. Demetrius Fields leads the way with 178 yards, while Tony Jones, Christian Jones, and Rashad Lawrence all have over 100 yards receiving. Venric Mark has caught 11 passes for 75 yards and a TD out of the backfield. He also has a punt return for a TD.
Northwestern is plus 4 on turnovers this year. The Wildcats have lost three fumbles, but have one interception and a remarkable 6 fumble recoveries, including one that was returned for a TD against Vanderbilt by Chi Chi Ariguzo. Ariguzo, a linebacker also leads NU in tackles, has 5.5 tackles for loss, and an interception. Others to watch on defense are David Nwabuisi, LB (3.5 TFL, 2 fumble recoveries), DE Tyler Scott (4.5 TFL, 3 sacks), and DL Brian Arnfelt (4 TFL, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery, 1 forced fumble). The Northwestern front seven has been good this year, and NU is 11th nationally in rushing defense, but they are allowing nearly 300 yards per game in the air (the good news for NU is that while they are #109 in pass defense they are #55 in pass efficiency defense. Their opponents are averaging only 2.7 yards per game on the ground.
At first blush, this would appear to be a game where IU will miss Tre Roberson (yeah, I know, that's all of the games). Given NU's stout run defense, it might be nice to find a way to soften them up. On the other hand, IU has four running backs who have seen substantial playing time, so perhaps we will find an answer there. Northwestern isn't an overwhelmingly incredible offense, but the Wildcats have played reasonably well and are the most talented team IU has faced. Ultimately, this game will be an important test for the Hoosiers on both sides of the ball. The defense simply has to be much, much better. And on offense, it will be interesting to see if IU can keep it up against a team that has had a respectable start. I'm a bit baffled about what to expect. Given that it's Indiana-Northwestern, I'll predict a close and painful loss. Northwestern 35, Indiana 31.