The final installment of our 2019 summer guide is the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll take you through Northwestern’s fall schedule week-by-week, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent and identifying some key players to look out for. The series serves as a way for us to evaluate and take stock of the team’s upcoming opponents.
Northwestern travels to Bloomington to face Indiana on November 2 following back-to-back home games against Ohio State and Iowa. NU and the Hoosiers simply don’t meet that often, facing off just once in the past six years, but the ‘Cats won the last matchup between these two programs by a score of 24-14. That was in 2016, which also happens to be the last season in which IU reached postseason play.
Returning production: 77 percent (Offense 78 percent, Defense 77 percent)
2018 record: 5-7 (2-7 B1G)
Coach: Tom Allen (3rd full season, 10-15)
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and Football Outsiders (and now ESPN!). You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2018 S&P+ Overall: 70th
2018 S&P+ Offense: 55th
2018 S&P+ Defense: 75th
2019 S&P+ Projection (Feb. 11): 46th
In his second full season as the man in charge of the Indiana program, Tom Allen produced identical results to year one. That is to say, the Hoosiers were Big Ten bottom-feeders for the second year in a row, beating only Rutgers (0-9 B1G) and Maryland (3-6) in conference play. The season started out well enough; Indiana won its three non-conference games to begin the season, averaging 32 points per contest and taking advantage of accurate and risk-averse quarterback play from Peyton Ramsey and strong games on the ground from Stevie Scott. Things fell apart pretty quickly after that, as the Hoosiers would win just two of their next nine, giving up nearly 34 points a game in the process.
Despite the poor record, IU had some reasons for optimism. Ramsey provided a silver lining with a solid overall sophomore campaign, completing 66 percent of his passes for 19 touchdowns in addition to five more scores via the ground. His 13 interceptions will need to be cut down, but the return of Scott and an experienced group of receivers should provide some hope for continued offensive improvement within the Hoosier fanbase.
Ultimately, though, Indiana was just worse at moving the ball on the ground and through the air than its opponents, and that doesn’t seem all too likely to change in 2019. Ending the season on a 1-6 stretch doesn’t exactly inspire optimism either, even with much of the program’s offensive core returning.
Balance will be the trait that continues to define the Indiana offense. Between Scott’s 1,137 yards and 10 touchdowns on five yards a carry and Ramsey’s solid and consistent efforts under center, the offense can certainly hold its own – the 26.4 points per game the unit averaged certainly weren’t the reason for the Hoosiers’ dismal 2018 Big Ten record. That being said, Ramsey comes back with room to improve as far as turnovers and efficiency go after averaging just 6.4 yards per attempt last season, though the return of receivers Nick Westbrook and Donavan Hale should make him relatively comfortable in doing so.
Still, Indiana’s run blocking and pass protection efforts are areas where regression can be expected. Three starting offensive lineman graduated this past offseason, including guard Wes Martin and tackle Brandon Knight. The Hoosiers’ ability to replace these departures has the potential to make or break Allen’s third season at the helm.
Overall, simply matching last year’s offensive output could be enough to win a few more games in 2019. As a whole, the unit moved the ball well, averaging 415 yards per game and 5.5 per play. Six of the team’s seven losses came when the opposing squad scored more than 30 points. Improvement couldn’t hurt, but it’s safe to say, a lack of offensive production wasn’t the reason for Indiana’s lack of team success.
There’s no other way around it – the Hoosiers had a pretty brutal year on the defensive side of the ball. The unit gave up 30 points per game and allowed an average of 6.0 yards per play. The Indiana defense got to the quarterback just 22 times throughout the season, resulting in the 90th best sack rate in the nation with an average of just 1.83 per game. Perhaps most shockingly, the Hoosiers allowed its opponents to convert on fourth downs at a rate of nearly 74 percent – good for second-worst in the country.
So if the defense couldn’t stop the run (183 rush yards given up per game), gave up a ton of points, couldn’t get to the quarterback, and frequently failed to get off the field on fourth down, what did they do well? Well, Indiana finished the season in a tie for 11th in the nation in takeaways, having intercepted the ball 13 times and recovered 13 fumbles. Defensive back Bryant Fitzgerald returns after forcing two fumbles and tallying three interceptions last season.
But while the defense brings back both Fitzgerald and TFLs leader Marcelino Ball, they lose their two leading tacklers in safety Jonathan Crawford and linebacker Damien Willis Jr. There is some hope on the recruiting front with the addition of two four-stars – defensive end Beau Robbins and outside linebacker Cameron Williams both ranked within the top 20 in the country at their respective positions – and three other quality prospects.
Still, with the statistic that typically has the most year-to-year variance (takeaways) being the unit’s best, it’s difficult to imagine the Hoosiers trotting out the defense needed to compete in the Big Ten East.
Three Players to Know
QB Peyton Ramsey
Ramsey is the most accurate quarterback in Indiana history and has the most passing yards of any returning quarterback in the Big Ten. He can make plays on the ground and has been more than competent in running the offense over the last two years. Hampered by a below average defense during his time as a Hoosier, Ramsey has lacked the transcendent talent necessary to carry the team to a bowl game and any semblance of conference success. He will be benefitted by the return of his two favorite targets, the team’s leading rusher, and another year of experience in his quest to change that narrative.
RB Stevie Scott
Thanks to all the quality running back talent in the Big Ten, it was easy for Scott to get overlooked last year – a byproduct of playing for a 5-7 Indiana team. But five yards per carry, 10 touchdowns and 95 yards per game helped make an argument for Scott as a top-five back in the conference. The departure of Penn State’s Miles Sanders, Michigan’s Karan Higdon, and Nebraska’s Devine Ozigbo, among others, further solidifies his placement amongst the best. Scott has yet to make a real impact in the receiving game, but the 231-pound back’s between-the-tackles ability will make him a fun watch regardless of the team’s overall performance.
K Logan Justus
Hey, the kicking game isn’t for everybody, but the Hoosiers are set to have one of the best placekickers in the conference, if not the nation. Justus hit 15 of 18 field goals last year and all but one of his extra points. He was one of two kickers in the Big Ten to be named to the preseason watchlist for the Lou Groza Award, awarded to the nation’s most outstanding placekicker.