After an awkward start to the 2016 campaign, which featured consecutive, close losses to Western Michigan out of the MAC and FCS member Illinois State, Pat Fitzgerald’s Northwestern Wildcats have found their groove — especially on offense. The Wildcats have won three of their last four and put up 92 points combined in back-to-back road wins against Iowa and Michigan State.
The Indiana Hoosiers are two possessions away from having a 5-1 record. But that is the difference between decent and good teams; good teams find a way to finish games — something the Hoosiers have struggled to do under head coach Kevin Wilson. As it stands now, the Hoosiers are 3-3 with a goal of making back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time since 1990-91. With games against Maryland, Rutgers and Purdue still to come, a victory over the Wildcats in Evanston could give the Hoosiers a shot at their first seven-win season since 2007.
Indiana at Northwestern
Kickoff: Sat., Oct. 22 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Big Ten Network
Spread: Northwestern -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Justin Jackson Running Wild
Neither team is very impressive when it comes to running the football. The Hoosiers (148.5) and Wildcats rank (139.8 11th and 12th, respectively, in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game. But each team has a game-breaker in their backfields. Indiana’s Devine Redding is sixth in the conference in rushing (548 yards, TD) and averages almost 100 yards per game. But the Wildcats’ Justin Jackson leads the way in the B1G with 698 yards and 116.3 yards per game, to go along with six rushing touchdowns. Jackson has broken out the last two weeks against Iowa and Michigan State, rushing for a total of 359 yards and three touchdowns on 60 carries. Although Indiana has improved defensively, Jackson still faces a Hoosier defense that gave up nearly 300 yards on the ground to Ohio State, and is allowing 166 rushing yards per game on the season.
2. Where is Indiana’s Offense?
When Kevin Wilson signed on to be the head man for the Hoosiers in 2011 he brought his high-flying, high-scoring offense from Oklahoma with him. Wilson’s offense-first m.o. has sent several Indiana running backs and wide receivers (Jordan Howard, Tevin Coleman, Cody Latimer) to the NFL while the Hoosiers’ defense remained at the bottom of the Big Ten barrel.
This season the roles have reversed — for the most part. People aren’t going to mistake Indiana’s defense for Michigan’s anytime soon, but the Hoosiers have — dare, I say — become reliable on defense in 2016. In Wilson’s first five seasons, the Hoosiers ranked dead last in the conference in total defense four times. This season, Indiana is still in the bottom half of the conference, but is giving up 10 fewer points per game than it has in any season since Wilson’s arrival. It’s the offense that has struggled to find its flow, averaging just 25.8 points per game, which is 11 points fewer than what this unit did in 2015 (36.5 ppg).
If the Hoosiers hope to leave Evanston with a win, quarterback Richard Lagow (1,656 yards, 12 TD, 9 INT) and the Hoosiers’ offense — especially on third downs (36.6 percent, 11th in Big Ten) — must be more efficient.
3. Second-Half Turning Point
Its not unfair to say that Wilson is trying to move his Indiana football program to where Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern football already are — into the realm of consistency. Since Fitzgerald arrived in Evanston in 2006, the Wildcats have been to six bowl games, been bowl eligible seven times, and have posted two 10-win seasons. A victory Saturday afternoon against Indiana would set up Northwestern nicely for its second straight bowl appearance. The Wildcats finish the regular season with three winnable games against Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois, but those come after making the trip to Columbus to play Ohio State and hosting Wisconsin these next two Saturdays.
The Hoosiers would love to find the consistency on the field that the Wildcats have developed under Fitzgerald. The Indiana athletic department has committed itself to the long-term success of the football program, namely in the form of a $124 million capital raising campaign whose primary goal is to enclose the south end zone of Memorial Stadium — giving The Rock a better Big Ten football atmosphere. But the best way to gain interest in the Hoosier football program is to win games during the season and go to bowl games in December. The Hoosiers have only appeared in two bowl games in the last 23 seasons, losing both. A win on Saturday puts the Hoosiers in the driver’s seat to appear in back-to-back bowl games for the first time in a generation, slowly moving the program in the right direction.
While running back Justin Jackson and quarterback Clayton Thorson are garnering the attention for Northwestern’s offensive resurgence, it’s truly the Wildcats’’ offensive line that is largely responsible for this success. In the first four weeks of the season Thorson was sacked 15 times. Since then he has been taken down behind the line of scrimmage just twice. Although Indiana’s defense has improved, the Hoosiers come into this game ranked second to last in the Big Ten in sacks. Indiana’s defense must find way to get to Thorson and stop Jackson before he runs all over the Ryan Field turf on Saturday afternoon.
Prediction: Northwestern 27, Indiana 24
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.