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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Indiana State

The Wildcats should have a straightforward path to victory against their FCS foe.

Tribune-Star/Joseph C. Garza

Northwestern takes on Indiana State in Evanston this weekend for a tidy 11 a.m. CT kickoff Saturday. Indiana State won their first game of the season last week against Eastern Illinois 26-21 after taking the year off in 2020, while Northwestern is coming off of a 38-21 loss at the hands of Michigan State. The two teams have never faced off on the gridiron before, but the Wildcats are coming into the contest as massive 29.5-point favorites. Here are three reasons why Northwestern will earn its first win of the year and three reasons why the ‘Cats will falter once again.

Why Northwestern will beat Indiana State

Michigan State was a wake-up call

Giving up a touchdown on the first play of the game and getting blown out on your home turf is certainly not the way in which the Wildcats were hoping to start off their 2021 campaign. There were not many positive takeaways from the contest, but Northwestern will have the perfect opportunity to rebound against a much more beatable Indiana State. Pat Fitzgerald should be able to use the loss to the Spartans as a way to motivate his team into coming out in a more focused and disciplined manner this Saturday against a team that lags behind the Wildcats on paper.

Northwestern is more talented

There are levels to college football. From perennial powerhouses like Clemson and Alabama to teams ranked in the Top 25, or from the Power Five to the rest of the FBS, differences in a team’s talent and ability vary greatly across the sport. And, although it might not have seemed like it last Friday against Michigan State, Northwestern competes and has seen a great deal of success at the highest level there is, while Indiana State lies many rungs below them as an unranked team in the FCS. The ‘Cats do not have as star-studded of a squad as a team like Ohio State, but compared to an Indiana State team that has had a winning record in the FCS just once in the past five years, they possess more individual talent across the board. One needs to look no further than last year’s NFL Draft to see how stark the contrast in individual skill is; Northwestern produced two first-round draft picks in the 2021 NFL Draft, while the Sycamores have failed to even have a player selected in the NFL Draft since the turn of the century.

In a sport where strength and natural ability are crucial factors, Northwestern holds the clear edge against Indiana State. Even if the Wildcats make some mistakes and miscues, it will be very difficult for the Sycamores to overcome the talent gap that belies both teams in order to steal a win in Evanston.

Northwestern’s defense is able to stop the run

After finishing the 2020 season with arguably the best defense in the country, Northwestern gave up a whopping 326 yards on the ground against Michigan State. A defensive figure that high typically doesn’t lead to a win, so it is imperative for Jim O’ Neil’s unit to come up with a way to limit the effectiveness of Indiana State’s rushing attack if Northwestern wants to come away with a victory on Saturday. Against the Spartans, players all over the defense struggled, from the linebackers to members in the secondary and those on the defensive line. In particular, it is the front seven that will need to do a better job of tackling better, plugging holes and being quicker to the ball. If they can do that, then Northwestern should be well-positioned to get its first win of the season.

Why Northwestern won’t beat Indiana State

Safety Michael Thomas shuts down Northwestern’s passing game

Hunter Johnson and the rest of the offense looked more than competent against a Michigan State defense that should be one of the better units in the Big Ten this season. That being said, Indiana State’s secondary is not a group that should be taken too lightly. Leading the charge for the Sycamore secondary is safety Michael Thomas, who had two interceptions last week, one of which was a 75-yard pick-six. Thomas was a first-team MVFC honoree in 2019, and he picked up right where he left off in Indiana State’s first game of the season. The rest of the defense isn’t as strong, but if Hunter Johnson is off his game, Thomas possesses the abilities to make him pay for any mistakes through the air.

Run game

One of Indiana State’s strengths is its ability to run the football, something they did well in week one. Senior running back Peterson Kerlegrand had 73 rushing yards and a touchdown, while quarterback Michael Haupert had 59 rushing yards and a score. The Sycamores’ run game’s versatility poses an additional threat to a Northwestern defense that already has a lot of question marks, as Haupert typically runs out of the wildcat formation, but also has the ability to throw the ball down the field.

Northwestern’s own rushing attack was not as successful in its first game of the season, as its running back-by-committee approach struggled to pick up consistent yardage on the ground. If Northwestern fails to both run the ball and stop the run, then an upset could be in the works for Indiana State.

Playing down to the competition

As mentioned above, a Power Five team like Northwestern should have no problem taking care of business against any FCS team. However, it is important to note that there have already been a shocking six FCS teams that have beaten FBS teams this season, including a 13-7 win by Montana over No. 20 Washington. Add on the fact that Northwestern has historically struggled in early season buy games (see Akron in 2018, Western Michigan and Illinois State in 2016), and it’s not out of the question to think that Indiana State might have a real shot at a win over Northwestern.