Football is an 11-on-11 game, but you have to win at the individual level to win at the team level. Here are three individual matchups that will be key in Saturday’s game between Northwestern and Indiana.
Trae Williams, Montre Hartage and Alonzo Mayo vs Mitchell Paige, Ricky Jones and Nick Westbrook
The Northwestern secondary is shaky right now. After giving up touchdowns of 59 and 86 yards a week ago, the secondary squares off with two big-play targets in Ricky Jones and Nick Westbrook. Jones and Westbrook have combined for 903 yards receiving so far this season, and have averaged 19.4 and 21.4 yards per reception, respectively. And that’s without even mentioning top receiver Mitchell Paige, who is a quick, smaller guy. Williams and Hartage have had to learn on the fly this season in the absence of Matthew Harris and Keith Watkins II, and have had their struggles at times; Mayo has now been burned for big plays in back-to-back games. With the sudden resurgence of the Northwestern front seven thanks to the incredible efforts of Ifeadi Odenigbo, improved play in the secondary could take the defense from shaky to stellar. And there should be plays to be had for the cornerbacks: Indiana quarterback Richard Lagow has thrown nine interceptions in six games this season. But if the status quo continues, the Wildcats might need another big game from the offense to keep up with the Hoosiers.
Northwestern’s offensive line vs Indiana front seven on rushing plays
We know that Justin Jackson is the focal point of the Wildcats’ newly explosive offense. The Big Ten’s leading rusher has paced Northwestern’s offense to the tune of the nation’s 11th-rated power success rate and the 38th-most explosive rushing attack. But this week’s matchup won’t be easy: Indiana ranks 27th in overall rushing S&P+ and 37th in limiting explosive rushing plays. Jackson has averaged 151 yards per game in Northwestern’s three wins this season and under 82 yards per game in the team’s three losses. Clayton Thorson’s drastically improved rapport with Austin Carr and the rest of the wide receivers has taken some of the extra defenders out of the box, and the offensive line and Jackson have capitalized the last two games. The offensive must continue to open up holes for Jackson to keep the offense on schedule and on the field.
Northwestern’s defense vs. Indiana’s offense in the fourth quarter
The fourth quarter is important in any football game, but it will be especially important this week. This series has had a history of close games in the past; seven of the previous nine matchups between the two teams have been decided by seven points or less, including seven straight games from 2002 to 2010 (the teams didn’t play every year). This season, the Hoosier offense has been a juggernaut in the fourth quarter, ranking third in the country in fourth quarter offensive S&P+. The Wildcat defense ranks 95th in the fourth quarter. Northwestern’s defense wore down toward the end of last week’s game, though this was partly due to Tyler O’Connor coming in at quarterback for Michigan State. Rotating defensive linemen will be key in keeping pass-rushers fresh to defend Lagow and the Hoosiers late in the game.