Every Thursday during football season, we'll be presenting reasons why Northwestern will or won't come away from its Saturday game victorious. It's not so much an argument for or against either result as it is envisioning the scenarios in which the Wildcats come away from the game with a win or a loss.
This week’s matchup pins Northwestern against Indiana in Evanston. The game is vital for Northwestern as the Wildcats will face Wisconsin and Ohio State in back-to-back weeks after this weekend. If Northwestern wins this weekend, bowl eligibility looks like a lock given the Wildcats’ soft schedule at the end of the season. If the Wildcats lose, however, the pressure on Pat Fitzgerald & Co. increases substantially, in all likelihood making the final three games must-wins. Here are the reasons Northwestern will or won’t win Saturday.
Why Northwestern will beat Indiana
1. Northwestern’s offensive line will keep Clayton Thorson clean
Last week Northwestern’s offense took advantage of a non-existent Michigan State pass rush en route to a 54 point explosion. Indiana has the second-fewest sacks in the Big Ten (nine), only ahead of the Spartans (six). Northwestern probably won’t hang 54 on Indiana, but Clayton Thorson will have time to survey the field and continue the success he has had in recent weeks. The Hoosier defensive line’s havoc rate —a statistic that measures forced fumbles, tackles for loss and passes broken up or intercepted— is 101st in the country. With a clean pocket to throw from, Clayton Thorson will push the ball downfield for some big plays.
2. Northwestern’s defense will dominate the redzone
Indiana’s offense has struggled to finish drives this season, coming in at 119th in the country in points per possession inside the opponent’s 40 yard-line. Northwestern’s defense, meanwhile, is 24th in the same category. Wildcat cornerbacks Montre Hartage, Trae Williams and Alonzo Mayo will be able to play closer to the line of scrimmage in these situations, which should help them because they won’t have to cover as much ground down the field. Northwestern’s defense will bend, but won’t break, and Indiana’s inability to execute in Northwestern territory will plague the Hoosiers yet again.
3. Indiana’s offense will be one dimensional
Indiana’s running game is at a significant disadvantage against Northwestern’s front seven. Anthony Walker Jr., Jaylen Prater and Joe Jones have played well in recent weeks; this trend will continue against a Hoosier offense that ranks 103rd in rushing S&P+. Indiana has also averaged just 3.7 yards per carry this season. If the Hoosiers can’t establish a running game, Northwestern will unleash Ifeadi Odenigbo and the suddenly potent pass-rush on Indiana quarterback Richard Lagow. Stopping the run will help put Indiana in third-and-long situations, which will translate to more stops for the Northwestern defense.
Why Indiana will beat Northwestern
1. Indiana will connect on long pass plays
Northwestern has been susceptible to giving up long-passing plays this season, and Indiana has had success through the air this season. Richard Lagow is the Big Ten leader in yards per attempt (8.9) and second in passing yards (1656). Tyler O’Connor exposed the Wildcat secondary a week ago, and Lagow will do the same. Indiana is 17th nationally in IsoPPP, which measures explosiveness. If Northwestern can’t contain Ricky Jones, Nick Westbrook and Mitchell Paige on the outsides, the Wildcats will be in for a long day.
2. Indiana’s improved defense will force turnovers
Indiana’s defense has improved by leaps and bounds from last season. The defense has risen from an abysmal 109th in S&P to 30th. The biggest factor in this meteoric rise is Indiana’s aggressive secondary. An aggressive secondary can backfire horribly—this has happened to Indiana at times this season—but it also has significant upside. For the Hoosiers, it produced a lot of upside this season. The Hoosier defensive backs rank 13th in havoc rate, and their pass-breakup to interception is the highest in the country. As efficient as Clayton Thorson was last week, he did throw a bad interception. Thorson has been prone to poor, ill-timed decisions during his career and those mistakes will hurt much more in a close game. Given that four of the six previous meetings in the Pat Fitzgerald era have been decided by three points or less, the game will be close. Takeaways change games, and Indiana now has the personnel to get them.
3. Jack Mitchell’s home struggles will continue
Jack Mitchell has made just one of four field goal attempts at home this season, and two of his last seven attempts at home. Conversely, he has made eight of his last 11 on the road. Mitchell has rebounded from his early season home struggles, but he still hasn’t proven he can succeed at home yet this season. If the game is close, Mitchell will be one of the most important players on the field. Northwestern’s offense ranks 88th in finishing drives this season, which puts even more onus on Mitchell. Mitchell’s recent success should help his confidence heading into Saturday, but if Mitchell does miss any kicks, it could spell trouble for Northwestern.