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Indiana at Northwestern Game Preview: Hoosiers head to Evanston for morning showdown with the Wildcats

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Y'all want to go to Evanston, play a game at 11 AM, and try to get the offense back on track?

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Game Info / How to Watch

Who? Indiana Hoosiers (3-3, #44 S&P+) at Northwestern Wildcats (3-3, #60 S&P+)

When? Saturday, 10/22, 12:00 PM, Evanston, Illinois

Channel? Big Ten Network

Vegas? INDIANA +1.5

S&P+ Projection? INDIANA, 28.2 - 25.9 (55%)

____________________________________

FIVE FACTORS

(% indicates how often a team wins the game if they win that battle. Explanation here.)


Explosiveness
(86%)
Efficiency
(83%)
Field Position
(75%)
Finishing Drives
(72%)
Turnover Margin
(73%)
INDIANA (#56 Offense) 1.41 (17th) 41.1% (74th) 30.3 (53rd) 3.69 (119th) 0 (54th)
NORTHWESTERN (#46 Defense) 1.16 (27th) 43.0% (81st) 27.4 (34th) 3.86 (24th) +2 (38th)

Explosiveness
(86%)
Efficiency
(83%)
Field Position
(75%)
Finishing Drives
(72%)
Turnover Margin
(73%)
INDIANA (#30 Defense)
1.26 (69th)
36.9% (26th)
28.0 (44th)
4.90 (83rd)
0 (54th)
NORTHWESTERN (#66 Offense)
1.21 (92nd)
40.2% (88th)
29.6 (71st)
4.49 (88th)
+2 (38th)

THE OPPONENT

The Wildcats are, arguably, a little difficult to peg statistically because they've such a bizarre season. They played really well to open the year against a Western Michigan team that now finds itself in the top-10 of the S&P+ ratings. They followed that up with a horrible performance and loss to FCS Illinois State, a reasonably decent effort and loss to Nebraska, a great effort and win over Iowa and then an extraordinarily flukey game against Michigan State that they managed to win despite most stats suggesting they shouldn't have.

But there's no denying the most important statistic of them all and Northwestern has 92 of them in the last two weeks. Granted, Michigan State is no longer anything special defensively but the Hawkeyes are fielding a comparable unit to Indiana's and they had no answers for the Wildcats' offensive renaissance. Justin Jackson is a bona fide stud out of the backfield, and if the Wildcats' line was a little better, he might be unstoppable. He's averaging close to five yards per carry and an otherworldly 5.9 highlight yards per opportunity, but his offensive line only gets him into that kind of space less than a third of the time, among the worst in the country.

Quarterback Clayton Thorson isn't far behind him, with 5.3 Hlt Yds / Opp providing the same dual-threat that Tommy Armstrong Jr. did last weekend that Indiana acquitted itself well against. As a passer, it's a bit of a mixed bag. He's only averaging 5.9 yards per throw and has been sacked 17 times. He's completing 58.3% of his passes with 11 touchdowns and 5 picks. The vast majority of his passes head toward Austin Carr, who has twice as many targets (61) and three times as many catches (43) as the next closes guy on the team. He's turned that into 595 yards and 8 scores, catching 70.5% of his targets and turning them into successful plays 65.6% of the time.

As a unit, the Wildcats' defense isn't in the same league as what the Hoosiers have seen the past few weeks but there are a certainly playmakers on that side of the ball. Senior defensive lineman Ifeadi Odenigbo has 14 combined sacks and tackles-for-loss along with two forced fumbles while junior linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. has 5.5 along with 2 pass break-ups and a forced fumble / recovery.

Northwestern's defensive line is the only part of the defense with a Havoc Rate that isn't below-average, ranking 43rd in the country. More troubling for the Wildcats is their defense appears to wear down significantly as the game goes on, ranking 20th in S&P+ in the 1st quarter, 46th in the 2nd, 79th in the 3rd, and 95th in 4th. Essentially, Northwestern begins the game as Houston but ends it as East Carolina.

They are 4th in the country at limiting big plays in the run game, but given that they're also 84th in Success Rate against the run and 90th in success rate against the pass, it's difficult to reap the benefits of that. Also, it's not as if the Hoosiers rely on big plays in the run game to succeed, as they've sunk to 70th in that category despite Devine Redding finally busting loose for a long touchdown against Nebraska.

THE HOOSIERS

Indiana fans didn't see anything new in the Hoosiers' loss to Nebraska that hadn't already been seen in the previous two conference games. The defense is very good but the offense isn't consistent enough for it to matter very much. What a bizarre year for a program that has long been struggling with the opposite issue.

The passing game had a particularly bad day on Saturday but remain 9th in the country overall while the rushing offense has now slipped into triple digits, only getting a successful play 37.7% of the time and rarely breaking out a big run. When Feeney and Camiel each went down with injury we talked a lot about what the "worst case scenario" would be and that's what the season is shaping up to be. The offense can't move the ball reliably without them, and there's no sign either is coming back any time soon.

I think we can finally exhale regarding the defense, they seem to be reliably good enough to keep the Hoosiers within striking distance of just about any opponent. As has been their M.O. this season, a couple of screwy plays by the Cornhuskers was all that stood in the way between Indiana riding their defense to victory and defeat. Part of the equation on these plays, however, is the Indiana defensive line being unable to get sustained pressure on the passer. Nebraska's long touchdown pass was the result of Tommy Armstrong Jr. slipping out of the pocket as pressure arrived and extending the play long enough to throw a bad ball downfield that was completed as three Indiana defenders collided into each other.

Indiana's havoc rate for their DL is ranked 93rd, the only below-average part of the defense. If the Hoosiers could find ways to generate more pressure from their front four, it could lead to less nonsense downfield.

THREE THINGS

  • The Turning Point: Both teams probably view this game as a turning point for their second half. S&P+ has three more wins predicted on the schedule for Indiana after this game while Northwestern only has two. The winner of this game probably feels a whole lot better about their chances at bowl eligibility and, should Indiana prevail, they've got a good chance to exceed last season's win total and keep up the program's overall momentum.
  • Explosiveness Matters: The team that wins the explosiveness battle wins the game 86% of the time and Indiana's offense ranks 17th in that category while Northwestern's defense ranks 27th. If Lagow and company can get it going downfield against the Wildcats, it should bode well for their chances.
  • Paging Nick Westbrook: The 6'3" wideout who is third on the team in targets was conspicuously absent against Nebraska, failing to record a catch or target and playing a reduced amount of snaps. The Hoosiers desperately need a tall target, particularly once they get to the red zone, and can't afford to have Nick Westbrook sidelined for any reason.

THE PREDICTION

The Hoosiers have played well in a lot of losses this year. I think the trend reverses on Saturday and they play poorly in a sloppy affair befitting the 11 AM local kickoff time. HOOSIERS 24, Wildcats 23.