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Who Has The Edge? Dissecting Northwestern vs. Indiana

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn) and Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

With gameday just one day away, we’ve already given you a breakdown of what to watch out fora statistics-based analysis, and a Q&A for an opponent's perspective. Now, we go inside the matchup to give you our prediction of who comes out on top, examining which team has the edge in different phases of the game.

When Northwestern has the ball... 

Chris: The way Northwestern torched opponents through the air last season, it seemed logical that this year’s Wildcats – whose receiving corps features eight dangerous targets, and as a whole might be the best in the Big Ten – would deploy pass-heavy game plans. It worked last season, and this year’s roster complexion is geared towards throwing the ball, and doing so frequently. But after four games, the Wildcats have gained more yards on the ground (885) than through the air (744), and have attempted 199 rushing plays to just 110 passes. That’s the portrait of a ground-and-pound team. But for NU, those metrics are more an indication of offensive balance than a fundamental strategic shift. In other words, NU isn’t about to give up on its potentially potent passing game in favor of a run-based attack. But this season’s early results prove NU’s run game is a vital component of the offensive formula going forward, one that will thrive alongside a dangerous passing game. Attaining balance on offense is now a realistic goal. This won’t be the pass-dependent offense we saw last season.

However coordinator Mick McCall plans to toe that line – to keep defenses off balance with a healthy mix of run and pass plays – the Hoosiers defense likely won’t be prepared to stop this offense. Indiana’s front seven is solid, particularly along the line with tackles Larry Black and Adam Replogle. Less flattering is the secondary, where the Hoosiers roll out four sophomores in their starting lineup. Last week, in its first test against a competent offense, IU gave up 234 passing yards and three touchdowns to Ball State quarterback Keith Wenning. NU may need to revisit its pass-heavy roots and exploit the Hoosiers’ inexperienced defensive backfield. With so many talented receivers, and two skilled quarterbacks, NU can pick apart the Hoosiers’ secondary. The Wildcats are yet to fire away on all cylinders offensively; against this shaky defense, going to the air is the best course of action. The receiving corps is primed for a breakout game, but it can’t realize its full potential unless McCall gameplans to maximize their talents. This weekend offers as good an opportunity as any to remove the shackles from NU’s aerial attack.

The passing game, if channeled and directed in the correct areas, will flourish against IU’s defense. The threat of Mark and co. in the run game will facilitate an altogether explosive offensive performance.

Edge: Northwestern

Kevin: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. That's what Kain Colter said of Northwestern's run-heavy offense after last Saturday's win against South Dakota, and expect to see just as much of the run game on Saturday. The last few years, NU has relied on its passing attack and quarterback rushing abilities due to the lack of a consistent running back. However, the Wildcats found a consistent back this year in Venric Mark, and they also have solid backups in Mike Trumpy and Treyvon Green. The offensive line has proven that it can control the line of scrimmage, and that should continue against Indiana.

Even if NU wants to throw, the Hoosiers have a terrible secondary, which should make it easy for Colter and Trevor Siemian to have big days. Since the Cats have focused so much on the run, they haven't utilized their talented receivers much at all this year. NU has plenty of options at receiver, and with so many weapons across the field against a bad defense, the passing offense should be able to roll and get some momentum heading into the Penn State game.

Edge: Northwestern

When Indiana has the ball…

Chris: Don’t be fooled by the Hoosiers’ 1-11 record last season. This team has more than a few dangerous offensive playmakers. At running back, De’Angelo Roberts, Tevin Coleman and Stephen Houston offer a diverse collective skill set. Cody Latimer and Shane Wynn are true deep threats who have clicked with newly-inserted quarterback Cameron Coffman. With Kevin Wilson, one of college football’s best offensive minds, and a wealth of capable pieces, the Hoosiers have more than enough ammunition to hang around with the Wildcats. In fact, judging by personnel, this could be the most talented offense NU has faced to this point. It’s up to Wilson to maximize that talent within the confines of his gameplan. Though IU will be without do-everything quarterback Tre Roberson, Coffman is a better pure passer and a better triggerman for IU’s deep receiving corps. Say what you want about schedule strength, but the Hoosiers have scored 110 points in three games. That’s impressive any way you slice it.

Pounding the ball, with the aforementioned tailback trio, is IU’s best chance to disrupt NU’s defensive composure. The Hoosiers can use their ground attack to set up the pass, and use the pass to spread out NU’s defense. It’s a cyclical process, and it should work if all the right dominoes fall into place. But against NU’s defense, who  last season gave up 38 points and 488 yards of total offense to Indiana, that plan is far from foolproof. NU’s improved defensive line will stifle the Hoosiers’ run game, and an underrated secondary will make life difficult for Coffman’s receiving targets. IU’s offense can put up points in a hurry, but this is a different Wildcats’ defense. A better one. Whereas last season NU’s porous defense heaped enormous amounts of pressure on the offense to outscore opponents, the 2012 defense will become an equally-relevant portion of NU’s winning formula. The last three weeks, it has revealed its potential. The defense will carry its strong performance into conference play.

Edge: Northwestern

Kevin: This won't be the toughest test Northwestern has faced up to this point in the season — in fact, it might be an easier game than three of the non-conference match ups — but it is the toughest test yet for the NU defense and a chance to see if that unit can hold its own against a formidable offense. Last year, though the Wildcats came out with a win, the Hoosier offense put up some big numbers and turned it into a shootout. Even without star quarterback Tre Roberson, this offense is capable of doing the same thing. Backup quarterback Cameron Coffman has proven his ability in place of Roberson and has a number of weapons at receiver — a position Indiana always seems to be good at — in Cody Latimer, Shane Wynn and Kofi Hughes. Latimer and Wynn have broken out this year, and both he and Wynn have big-play ability. So does Hughes, who is having a down year after figuring to be the Hoosiers' top receiver. If they can get over the top of NU's secondary — certainly possible considering the Syracuse — they could make this a game.

Indiana's running game is no slouch either. In addition to last year's top rusher, Stephen Houston, De'Angelo Roberts and Tevin Coleman have come on strong to give the Hoosiers a solid stable of running backs. The NU defensive line has had an impressive season and has been able to control the line of scrimmage for the most part — the Cats held Boston College and South Dakota to a combined 76 yards rushing — but this will be one of the best running games it has seen. NU will need to make the Hoosiers one-dimensional, but even then, with so many weapons, Indiana has the potential to score points, even against an improved NU defense.

Edge: Even

Special Teams

Chris: There are few areas of the game where NU has improved more than on special teams. Mark’s kick returns exploits stick out, but the punting and kicking games, once blasted for their inconsistency, have smoothed out the rough edges and turned a corner. Chances are this run of success will take a turn for the worse at some point this season. But I wouldn’t count on it this week. Kicker Jeff Budzien and punter Brandon Williams are booming with confidence. Fitzgerald has learned to trust Budzien on toss-up fourth down situations, while Williams continues to give NU a huge edge in the field position battle. Much of the NU-related criticism last season centered on its lack of balance in each phase of the game, that it was an offense-or-bust squad. The defensive and special teams improvements have all but obliterated that argument.

The body of evidence on Indiana’s special teams play is miniscule – to the point where discerning any veritable trends of performance are nearly impossible. The kick and punt return games have been merely average (13.0-yd punt return average, 18.6-yd kick return average) while kicker Mitch Ewald has attempted just five kicks and made three of them. Far as I can tell, the Hoosiers have the athletes and the experience to field a strong special teams unit, but the small sample size gives provides little evidence to support that claim.

Edge: Northwestern

Kevin: What has happened to Northwestern's special teams? Typically, this team has been haunted by special teams mistakes, but NU may have the best special teams unit in the Big Ten this year, due to major improvements in the kicking game. Kicker Jeff Budzien now owns the NU record for consecutive extra points made and is 8-for-8 on field goals, including three from 40-plus yards. That's a huge improvement last year, when he was 6-for-10 for the whole season. Punter Brandon Williams has proven to be much more reliable this year in the few times he has been needed and kick returner Venric Mark has been electrifying.

Indiana is in the same place as NU was last year from a kicking game standpoint. Kicker Mitch Ewald is just 3-for-5 and 1-for-3 from 40-plus yards. The Hoosiers also don't have a game-changer at returner like NU does. This one isn't likely to come down to special teams, but if it does, NU has a big edge.

Edge: Northwestern

Prediction

Chris: Northwestern 38, Indiana 24 – The Wildcats’ apparent defensive upgrades will face a stiff test this week. I say that in relative terms, because of course NU will face better defenses this season. But the one area that merits your full attention is the secondary, where Coffman can test the Wildcats youth and inexperience with a batch of athletic wideouts. The Hoosiers put up big numbers against NU’s defense last season, but they were never really competitive in that game. That was with Tre Roberson pulling the strings on offense. Coffman is a viable replacement, but he cannot lay claim to the dynamic dual-threat skill set Roberson possesses. That said, NU is bound to slip up at some point this season, and with four straight wins under its belt, and a tough game coming up next week at Penn State, Indiana might have enough offensive firepower to maybe, possibly….No. The Wildcats are the better team, in all three phases of the game. This game will serve as a launching pad for a successful Big Ten season. And if you enjoy offense, I highly recommend you watch.

Kevin: Northwestern 41, Indiana 17 — Indiana will score points; it won't score as many as Syracuse — the Northwestern defense has improved since then —  but it will score. Hoosiers quarterback Cameron Coffman will throw for a touchdown on a big play, but for the most part, the NU secondary will be okay. Indiana won't get much of a rushing attack going, and since Coffman is much less mobile than Roberson, the Wildcats' outstanding rush defense numbers will continue for another week. Offensively, NU will get off to another quick start and never look back. Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian will both have big days through the air and Venric Mark will put up another 100-yard game on the ground, helping NU improve to 5-0 and likely earn a spot in the top 25.