With the Most Important Players and Position Previews sections of our Summer Guide having wrapped up, we now move on to our Know Your Opponent series, in which we preview every team Northwestern will face this season. When we hit game week, we will have more in-depth and comprehensive coverage, but for now we give you a general overview of the team so you know what to expect in general.
Next up is a crucial game for Northwestern, a home contest against the up-and-coming Indiana Hoosiers sandwiched between two road games against Michigan State and Ohio State.
Returning Starters: 18 (8 offense, 8 defense)
2015 Record: 6-7 (2-6 Big Ten)
Coach: Kevin Wilson, 6th year (20-41)
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2015 S&P+ Overall: 60th
2015 S&P+ Offense: 19th
2015 S&P+ Defense: 105th
2016 S&P+ Projection: 56th (10 spots below Northwestern)
Kevin Wilson finally did it. The former Northwestern offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach brought Indiana to its first bowl game in eight years. Now, he's tasked with getting the Hoosiers to back to back bowl games for the first time since the 1990-91 season. Wilson did it in typical Indiana Hoosier fashion - scoring more points than the other team. The Hoosiers were first in the Big Ten in yards per game, averaging 504.3, but also first in yards allowed, giving up 509.5 per game. They started off the 2015 season 4-0, highlighted by wins over a really good Western Kentucky team, and a not-so-good Wake Forest team. Then, Indiana proceeded to lose six consecutive Big Ten games, including a few heartbreakers. Opening Big Ten play against Ohio State is never easy, but the Hoosiers nearly pulled off the upset losing by just a touchdown. Two weeks later, the Hoosiers fell to Rutgers 55-52 after being outscored 22-0 in the fourth quarter. Loss number five was by one possession to Iowa, and the sixth was in double overtime to Michigan. Kevin Wilson's team showed resilience, however, winning its final two games against Maryland and Purdue to secure a bowl berth. The Hoosiers lost to Duke 44-41 in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl on a last second field goal that was controversially ruled no good.
This is a dangerous offense that likes to go fast; the Hoosiers ran the most plays in the Big Ten last year by a margin of nearly 100. They finished 14th in the nation in total offense, but are tasked with replacing three of the major reasons for its success - QB Nate Sudfeld, RB Jordan Howard, and OT Jason Spriggs.
Kevin Wilson's steady hand should be able to guide Indiana to lofty offensive numbers yet again. Howard was able to fill the shoes of current Atlanta Falcon running back Tevin Coleman, and there's no reason why junior Devine Redding can't fill the void. He racked up over 1,000 yards as the backup to Howard last season, and should become the primary back and a leading Big Ten rusher. Returning four starters on the offensive line is huge for Indiana.
The biggest strength of this offense might be its wide receiver corps. The Hoosiers are returning its top three receivers, including top weapon Simmie Cobbs. Along with Ricky Jones and Mitchell Paige, Indiana's wide receivers have the ability to take over games.
What is far from a sure thing is the quarterback position. JUCO transfer Richard Lagow is tasked with replacing Sudfeld, the arguably most prolific passer in Indiana football history. He's a big guy and with his size, will inevitably draw comparisons to Sudfeld. The biggest question is whether or not he can somewhat replicate Sudfeld's output at a high level. Don't sleep on rising junior Zander Diamont who has shown flashes of brilliances at quarterback, or Danny Cameron, the son of LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
Surprisingly, it might not be a good thing that Indiana is returning eight of its starters from last year. The defense was just that bad. They gave up at least 240 passing yards in every game but three, and allowed 400 passing yards three separate times.
While the entire defensive line is gone, Indiana is bringing its entire secondary back into the fold. Indiana allowed nearly 200 yards on the ground per game, good for 13th in the Big Ten. Filling the void of three starters will be tough, but it's hard to imagine the defense could get much worse than it was last season.
Tasked with rebuilding this group is Tom Allen, the third defensive coordinator under Coach Wilson. Allen was the defensive coordinator for a successful USF defense. Wilson also reeled in Texas A&M coach Mark Hagen to coach the defensive line, and these changes certainly cannot hurt this defense. What should also help the secondary are a couple of transfers - Jayme Thompson from Iowa Western via Ohio State and Wesley Green from South Carolina.
The strength of this unit is undeniably the linebackers. They have plenty of talent and it will be interesting to see how Allen uses them, he ran a 4-2-5 alignment at USF.
Three Players to Know
QB Richard Lagow – This is assuming Lagow is the starter for this game. It seems like he has the inside-track on the job over Zander Diamont and Danny Cameron. The former UConn commit-turned Oklahoma State walk on turned-JUCO quarterback is a 6-foot-6 gunslinger, and it sounds like he played fine in spring ball. Diamont could be used in short-yardage sets, but expect Lagow to be the guy to watch.
CB Rashard Fant – Fant is a solid lockdown corner and a bright spot in the secondary. Although he only had one interception last year, it game in a big moment in the Pinstripe Bowl. He also finished second in the nation in pass breakups with 22. At a generous 5-foot-10, Fant is far from the biggest guy on the field, but he often has the responsibility to shut down the opposition's best receiver.
RB Devine Redding – Indiana breeds running backs; its last two, Tevin Coleman and Jordan Howard, are currently in the NFL. Devine Redding is next in line to receive the bulk of the workload, but he is far from inexperienced. The rising junior rushed for 1,000 yards on 4.5 YPC, and had nine touchdowns. A huge part of the Hoosier offense is integrating the run, and Redding must attempt to fill the void that Howard left when he left for the NFL draft.
Behind Enemy Lines
Michael Dugan from Inside Indiana of 247 Sports takes our questions
Best case scenario for Indiana in 2016
Michael: Call me crazy, but Indiana could pick up eight wins if everything goes very, very well. Their three non-conference games are very winnable, including two opponents whom they defeated last year. There are three games in their conference portion of the schedule that will be losses (MSU, at Ohio State, at Michigan) but the rest are all winnable. They play the bottom of the Big Ten in Rutgers, Maryland, and Purdue, as well as Nebraska and a Christian Hackenberg-less Penn State, both at home. The offense has the tools to succeed, from explosive receivers to one of the best offensive lines in the country. They were a play away from wins against both Michigan and Ohio State, as well as an eight-point loss against Iowa, which would have propelled them to nine wins last year had they won all three.
Worst case scenario
Michael: While Indiana returns most of their important role players from last year, they do lose their starting QB and running back to the NFL. When anyone has to replace those two positions, it's never easy. If the new quarterback doesn't click, whether it's experienced backup Zander Diamont, Danny Cameron or junior college transfer Richard Lagow, this team will struggle greatly. If all goes wrong, this team barely has enough to scramble together four wins.
Prediction for Indiana vs. Northwestern
Michael: This is an intriguing matchup for Indiana fans. Last year, Northwestern was a team with a remarkable defense and a struggling offense with a young quarterback. Indiana had one of the more explosive offenses in the nation and, when healthy, racked up great numbers against elite defenses like Michigan and Ohio State, but had a struggling defense. If these trends hold, it could be a very weird game. Indiana will likely have another 1,000 yard rusher in Devine Redding and very capable receivers, so the offense should succeed to some extent again. The defense only lost a couple of guys and the secondary is all returning, so it will be interesting. It will likely be a matter of which team's strength plays better, and which team's weakness makes one more play. Most people expect Northwestern to win, and that is by no means a bold statement, but if there's a possible trap game at home, this could be it. Sleeping on Indiana is not smart, as they can score at will. I'll go with Northwestern, 34-27.
Your season prediction for Indiana
Michael: The difference between their best and worst cases is four games, so it make sense to put them in the middle at 6-6 again. They will likely lose the games against Michigan, MSU and OSU, and then could lose Penn State, Nebraska and Northwestern. Any of the latter three games could be won just as easily as lost. It's all a matter of the quarterback play. The defense is not strong enough to rely on toward the end of close games, and the offense needs to produce enough points to put themselves into a position to win.
It's hard to label games as "must-wins" before the season even starts, but this is as close as it gets. This weekend is homecoming for Northwestern, and it falls right in the middle of the gauntlet of the Wildcats' schedule. In all likelihood, Northwestern will be coming back from East Lansing in need of a win, especially with a trip to the Horseshoe looming the following week.
The last time these teams met in 2012, Northwestern won 44-29. Kevin Wilson's teams always feature a high-octane offense, and despite losing his two biggest offensive weapons Nate Sudfeld and Jordan Howard, he will undoubtably have a dangerous offense. Northwestern will have to contain Wilson's offense and take advantage of the porous Indiana defense. What hindered Indiana last season was losing the turnover battle, 10 of their 14 turnovers came in their seven losses. It would be huge for the Wildcats to get up early in this one, forcing the Hoosiers to play from behind, make mistakes, and let Northwestern establish the run. If that happens, there's no reason this game shouldn't play out like the 2012 matchup.
Date: Oct. 22
Time: 11 a.m. CT