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An early look at the Northwestern Wildcats.

Northwestern Wildcats
Last meeting: 10/24/2008 (IU 21, NU 19 in Bloomington)
Last NU win: 11/10/2007 (NU 31, IU 28 in Evanston)
Series: Northwestern leads 42-34-1
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald
(4th year, 19-18)

Northwestern is the only Big Ten team on the schedule that owes IU any revenge.  Thanks to last year's carnage and our historical futility against Michigan and Ohio State, IU is on a losing streak against 9 of 10 conference opponents.  Last season, IU provided one of the few disappointing moments in Northwestern's 9-win season by upsetting the Wildcats 21-19 in Bloomington.  The 2008 game was the fifth consecutive IU-NU game decided by a touchdown or less, but the first of those five that IU managed to win.

How did we do it?  Here's the game in a nutshell:

The box score reveals a fairly even game statistically, although Northwestern's five turnovers certainly stand out. Still, IU modestly outgained the Wildcats (319-316). NU ran the ball more effectively than IU, but neither was great: NU ran for 152 yards and 3.2 per carry; IU managed only 72 yards and 2 yards per carry. Both teams were 22-35 passing, but IU threw for 247 yards and no interceptions, while NU passed for 164 yards and threw two interceptions. Kellen Lewis was dressed but did not play. Chappell went the distance. Also, IU was without senior WR Andrew Means.

Obviously, the most encouraging aspect of the IU-NU game was the fine performance of Ben Chappell.  The Illinois game that I recapped yesterday was one of Ben's worst days as a Hoosier, but last year's NU game was his best so far.  It must have been sweet revenge for Chappell: as a redshirt freshman, Chappell saw his first meaningful game action with 5 minutes left in the first half at Northwestern when Kellen Lewis missed a play because he was shaken up.  IU led 14-3 and faced 3rd down and 6 to go.  Instead of playing it safe, the coaching staff allowed Chappell to throw the ball downfield.  He locked onto James Hardy and threw an interception that NU returned to the house.  That play was 99 percent the coaching staff's fault, but because of that play I'm sure it was gratifying for Chappell to get his first Big Ten win against NU. 

The Northwestern offense, like IU's, will be replacing several key players at the offensive skill positions.  Quarterback CJ Bacher is gone, and Mike Kafka will be the starter.  Kafka played late in the IU game because of an injury to Bacher and played poorly.  Late in the game, while trying to avoid a sack, Kafka threw the ball away--backwards.  It was, of course, a live ball, and ended up as a 24 yard loss for NU.  Kafka fumbled on the next play, and IU recovered, effectively sealing IU's victory.  Nevertheless, Kafka started the next two games and played reasonably well, particularly in a win at Minnesota, in which he completed 12 of 16 passes and also ran for 217 yards, so he's no pushover.  At tailback, NU loses the excellent Tyrell Sutton and replaces him with Stephen Simmons, who was injured and less-than-impressive last season.  NU also is breaking in a new crop of receivers, but the O-line is experienced. Like IU's, the defense is NU's more experienced unit, and most starters, including the entire secondary, return.  Here is NU's NCAA stat report.  The Wildcats were particularly effective at rushing the passer.

NU will be seeking revenge, but hopefully IU isn't done exacting payback for the four heartbreakers that preceded last year's win.