After suffering a tough 20-0 loss against Iowa last week, NU travels to Bloomington to take on the Hoosiers. While the ‘Cats offense continues to struggle, it will be key for the defense to try and slow down Indiana’s spread-out offensive attack and their impressive group of skill players. Here are three matchups to look for this week:
Indiana’s passing game vs Northwestern’s secondary
In an otherwise frustrating season, one of Northwestern’s bright spots this season has been their pass defense, which currently sits at 14th in the country at 180.0 YPG allowed. On the other side of the ball, Indiana possesses an air attack that lands in the top-15 as well, sitting at 11th with 312.8 YPG. While the status of starting QB Michael Penix Jr. is still unknown for this week’s game, backup Peyton Ramsey has stepped up impressively for his team this season, completing a very efficient 72.1% of his passes with only 3 interceptions.
Indiana has shown a tendency to spread their offense out and look for deep shots, having 7 of their 18 passing touchdowns come from 26 yards or more. While Northwestern has been able to limit total yards through the air, they’ve only notched two interceptions thus far — if they can find themselves in position to make plays on these big-hitters, it could definitely help them slow down this speedy offense.
Northwestern’s D-Line vs Indiana’s O-Line
Part of what allows Indiana to sling the ball around so well this season is their top-notch pass blocking. The Hoosiers’ front five has a top-10 sack rating from Football Insiders, having given up only 11 of them so far this year. On the ground, however, the story is much different; Indiana ranks 68th or worse in four of Football Insiders’ five run-blocking metrics, with nearly a quarter of their rush attempts being stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage.
Northwestern’s defensive line play hasn’t been horrible thus far, but losing Earnest Brown IV and Trevor Kent will force other guys to make plays this week. If they can step up and manage to get pressure on whoever Indiana has under center Saturday, it may force them to run the ball, something they don’t particularly like to do.
Aidan Smith vs outside noise
Despite frustration from fans over recent quarterback play, Fitzgerald and McCall still seem to have confidence in their redshirt junior QB. While people may not be happy about it, Smith looks to remain starter for this week, and possibly the remainder of the season as well.
While his play has certainly been less-than-stellar to this point (1 TD, 6 INT in 5 games), it’s still going to be important for him to remain confident going forward, as noted by Fitzgerald on Monday. If Smith can ignore the criticism, put the first half of the season behind him, and focus on finishing the season strong, then this week just might be the beginning of a turnaround for him. That’s sort of the only hope Northwestern’s passing game has at this point anyways.