On Saturday, Indiana (4-3, 1-2) visits Northwestern (4-3, 1-2) in what will likely amount to be a game that is essential for both teams' fading bowl hopes in this 2009 season.
The Hoosiers are coming off a home win over hapless-looking Illinois, while the Wildcats are looking to rebound from a loss against Michigan State, which was yet another game they let get away from them in the second half (NU had a second-half lead in each of its three losses this season).
After this game, both teams face very similar schedules, with the ranked trio of Penn State, Iowa, and Wisconsin on tap for both squads down the stretch of the regular season.
Both NU and IU do have one winnable game left on the slate, though (Illinois for NU and Purdue for IU), making this game that much more important to reach a bowl-eligible 6-6 record.
The Wildcats will also be looking to avenge last year's loss in Bloomington that likely kept NU out of a Jan. 1 bowl game as IU upset the 'Cats 21-19 on a day that saw both QB CJ Bacher and RB Tyrell Sutton go down with injuries.
Northwestern does have an all-time 42-34-1 edge over Indiana (the only Big Ten opponent that NU holds an all-time winning record over), but the last five contests have been decided by an average of just 4.4 points per game.
Despite last week's loss, NU's defense has been solid since coming alive in the second quarter of the Purdue game, allowing just 12 points per game from the second quarter of that game onwards.
Against MSU, NU's defense held up well outside of a few long passing plays, ironically the same type of performance that doomed the 'Cats against the Hoosiers last year (two long TD passes and a short touchdown following a fumbled kickoff).
Indiana, meanwhile, started the year off strong at 3-0, albeit against lesser competition, before falling to Michigan and Ohio State in consecutive weeks. Then, the bottom fell out against Virginia in a 47-7 loss before finding some redemption against a reeling Illini squad a week ago.
IU's QB Ben Chappell is the reigning Big Ten offensive player of the week following his 333-yard, three TD performance last week. The 'Cats know how dangerous he can be, as he engineered Indiana's upset win last year. On the year, he's thrown for 1,664 yards, eight TDs, seven INTs, and sports a 63.4% completion rate.
The Wildcats, meanwhile, will try to counter with its biggest offensive weapon, QB Mike Kafka, who has 1,755 yards on the season along with seven passing TDs to just four INTs (he has also added four TDs rushing).
Despite having some costly turnovers in NU losses to Syracuse and Minnesota, he has seemingly turned the corner, putting together an efficient and turnover-free performance one week ago.
Based on the recent history in this series and the fact that both teams will be playing for their bowl hopes, expect an evenly-matched and hard-fought game in Northwestern's homecoming football game.
Opening Line: Northwestern by five.
Who Should Win
Northwestern. The 'Cats have been playing better defense of late and have demonstrated an ability to contain the run, an important fact when facing a team whose top two rushers are averaging a collective 4.8 yards per carry.
And despite not being able to "dink and dunk" their way to victory against MSU last week, the 'Cats have enough offensive weapons in the passing game to get the job done against the nation's 87th ranked pass defense (in terms of yards). Having this game in Evanston also gives the 'Cats a boost.
Just look at last year, when Indiana surprised NU in their 2008 homecoming game thanks to a plus five turnover margin and some big plays (TD passes of 43 and 28 yards).
The Hoosiers have offensive weapons at the skill positions (WRs Tandon Doss and Damarlo Belcher along with RBs Darius Willis and Demetrius McCray) and have some bona-fide next level talent on the DL with Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton, who have combined for an insane 8.5 sacks and six forced fumbles just over half way through this season.
As demonstrated in last year's game, all it takes is a handful of big plays to tip the scales in one's favor.
What to Look for
Northwestern Offense / Indiana Defense
The Wildcats' offense is still searching for the groove NU fans have seen so many times since Northwestern began fielding the spread offense in 2000.
After starting out the year at a decent clip (31.8 points per game through five games), NU has totaled just 30 points in the past two contests, despite one of those games being against one of the nation's worst defenses (statistically).
Kafka has been NU's biggest offensive weapon this year, posting a solid completion percentage and accounting for 12 of Northwestern's 22 touchdowns during the 2009 season. And removing sack numbers, he's run for 280 yards on the year, showing that he still has legs that can do damage as well.
NU's running game, on the other hand, has been the 'Cats' weakness and was all but abandoned last week against MSU, with NU RBs accounting for just eight carries on the day. Coach Pat Fitzgerald confirmed this fact following the game, saying that NU would pass the ball "175 times" if it had to, even if that's not his preferred game plan.
Much of that is due to Northwestern's poor offensive line play: NU has yielded an average of 2.43 sacks per game this year (86th nationally), while Kafka has been hurried another 14 times and has used his feet to escape pressure numerous other times.
That fact doesn't bode well against an Indiana team whose defensive strength is on the line, a line that put the heat on NU last year and will be looking to do so again.
Seniors Middleton and Kirlew will be flying in from the edge (did I mention they have a combined 20 TFLs so far this year?), while underclassmen Larry Black and Adam Replogle will hold down the middle of a DL that is helping Indiana yield just 3.7 yards per carry this year.
At the next level, there's LB Matt Mayberry, who leads IU in tackles with 58 on the season to go with 2.5 sacks, six TFLs, two pass break-ups, and a fumble recovery.
Finally, in the secondary, Indiana fields an experienced bunch (all have at least four years in the program), featuring team interception leader (with two), S Austin Thomas. There's also converted WR Ray Fisher, who has a couple of pass break-ups to go along with his 33 tackles this year.
The key to this matchup is obviously in the trenches; Indiana has two huge playmakers on the edges and NU has had some major problems on the OL this season, so this is likely to be where the game is won or lost. Assuming Northwestern won't be able to generate much of a rushing attack (again), pass protection is vital to give the 'Cats any chance to move the ball on offense.
Northwestern Defense / Indiana Offense
As mentioned earlier, the 'Cats' D has performed fairly well over the past few games, and that despite DE Corey Wootton missing the majority of the last two games with an ankle injury, S Brendan Smith going out against Miami (OH) with a hand injury, and S Brad Phillips leaving the MSU game with a shoulder injury.
The loss of both safeties was definitely a factor in MSU's successful passing attack a week ago.
Even with those three playmakers out for NU, the 'Cats boast a few more players who can make a difference, like NU tackle leader LB Quentin Davie, who has 53 on the season, including four sacks, three forced fumbles, and four QB hurries.
CB Sherrick McManis was burned on one play last week, but has generally been a lockdown corner and leads NU with three INTs and four pass break-ups.
A major factor in NU's defensive success over the past three games has been the run defense; even with sacks taken out of the rushing numbers, NU has been yielding an average of just 111 rushing yards per game over the last three contests. Credit DTs Adam Hahn and Niko Mafuli for helping to stuff the run in the middle.
The Hoosiers' offense has been making a living off the big play this year, with 26 20+ yard offensive plays.
They also use a lot of deception on offense (as NU learned the hard way last year thanks to a 28-yard TD toss from WR Mitchell Evans), including some plays from the pistol formation and their version of the wildcat offense with Evans taking the direct snap.
Out of the wildcat, Evans is averaging 6.2 yards per carry, but he doesn't have to do it alone as he has RBs Willis and McCray, who both average over 4.8 yards per carry each. Both of those RBs also have breakaway TD runs of 85 and 59 yards, respectively, something NU will have to be careful to contain.
There's also the aforementioned Chappell, who makes some mistakes (seven INTs on the year), but can hit some big plays (six passes of 30+ yards this year). He's throwing to a talented WR corps with Doss, Belcher, and Evans making significant contributions.
The key to this matchup again lies at the line of scrimmage. The 'Cats' DL has shown solid improvement as this season has progressed, and they must continue that trend by containing the Indiana running game and forcing Chappell into uncomfortable situations.
Northwestern can't give up the explosion play (like they did last year versus Indiana as well as last week against MSU), either, and will need to generate some pressure from the DL, who has underwhelmed against Big Ten competition so far this year.
NU P/K Stefan Demos has been rather reliable in his placekicking duties, going 19-of-20 on XPs and 9-of-10 on FGs (his only miss was blocked). Unfortunately, the effects of him handling all kicking duties may be starting to show themselves.
Demos is averaging just 35.1 yards per punt and has placed only 10-of-31 punts inside the opponents' 20 yard line. Northwestern's net punting is 32.5 yards per punt, putting them at 107th nationally.
Kickoffs aren't much better, as he's averaging 61.3 yards per kick and has just one touchback on the year, and NU's kickoff return defense is a middle-of-the-pack 20.7 yards per kickoff allowed.
Although the 'Cats have prevented any big returns so far this year, they aren't exactly sticking opponents deep in their own end, which hasn't exactly helped NU's defensive cause.
Indiana has two dangerous kick/punt returners in Fisher and Doss: Fisher is averaging almost 34 yards per kick return and already has a touchdown return this year, while Doss is averaging 21.4 yards per return.
Overall, the Hoosiers are 24th nationally in kick returns, an area that NU must focus on containing, especially since opponents have been close to breaking a few against NU this year.
Indiana's kicker, Nick Freeland, is perfect on 18 XP tries but is just 11-of-17 on field goals with four of his misses coming on kicks under 40 yards.
Although Northwestern's return game has been lacking (to say the least), they'll have an opportunity in this game to get something going. IU is one spot worse than NU in net punting nationally and is 95th on kick return defense, allowing 23.5 yards per kickoff.
NU kick returner, Jeravin Matthews, had a nice 28-yard return last week (after muffing a kickoff) and has the speed to break one if he can get a hole. He may get his chance this week.
This game may very well be decided by a special teams play, and with both teams having their own respective deficiencies in this phase, there's definitely the chance of a big play from either side.
NU Third Down Conversions
Northwestern is still doing very well converting its third downs as the 'Cats are seventh nationally in percentage (50.9 percent) and tied for first in total number of conversions (59).
Indiana, meanwhile, is near the bottom in third down conversion defense (84th), allowing a 41.6 percent conversion rate. That bodes well for the Wildcats building long drives, which is essential given the type of spread offense that NU runs.
Red Zone Offense
NU is officially 25th in red zone offense (88 percent scoring rate), but discounting a late drive against Towson where NU was intentionally running down the clock and didn't want to score, the 'Cats have gone 23-of-25 on the year (92 percent) with 16 TDs.
Indiana has been a little less successful, with an 83 percent scoring rate (61st nationally) and 11 TDs in 24 total trips.
Red Zone Defense
Both teams have had success stopping teams from scoring in the red zone; NU is 17th nationally, allowing just a 73 percent scoring rate, while IU is an impressive fifth nationally, allowing a 67 percent rate. Both teams have allowed just 13 red zone TDs all season.
NU and IU have both had success generating takeaways, with NU seventh nationally with 18 on the year, while Indiana is 23rd with 15.
Both teams have positive turnover margins on the season.
Northwestern is 3-0 on the year when winning the turnover battle and 1-3 when losing the battle.
IU, meanwhile, is 3-1 when generating a positive turnover margin and 1-2 when falling on the negative side.
It's clear that the winner of the turnover battle will put themselves in a position to win the game.
RB Alex Daniel (ankle, out for season), OL Mike Boyle (back, doubtful), DT Jack DiNardo (shoulder, questionable), LB Bryce McNaul (leg, doubtful), CB Justan Vaughn (leg, questionable), LB Ben Johnson (hamstring, questionable), S Brendan Smith (hand, doutbful), DE Corey Wootton (ankle, probable), S Brad Phillips (shoulder, questionable).
The season is continuing to take its toll on the 'Cats. Wootton was limited against MSU and although he's progressing, he hasn't looked anywhere close to last year's performance.
Smith is out with a hand injury (he doesn't appear on this week's depth chart), while fellow safety Phillips is "day-to-day" after a shoulder injury at MSU (he had offseason shoulder surgery, it's unknown if it's that same shoulder).
Johnson and Vaughn appear on the depth chart as "or" backups, meaning that they may be close to returning.
The key to this game, though, is a solid secondary, and that's tough to do with less experienced guys in the defensive backfield. Hopefully, Phillips can make it onto the field Saturday because otherwise, redshirt freshman Jared Carpenter will be thrown into the fire again.
DE Darius Johnson (shoulder, doubtful), DE Fred Jones (foot, doubtful), LB Leon Beckum (ankle, doubtful), DT Jarrod Smith (back, doubtful), CB Chris Adkins (elbow, doubtful), RB Zach Davis-Walker (foot, doubtful), OL Pete Saxon (ankle, questionable).
Indiana is also a bit banged up on defense, but has mostly lost depth and not necessarily the big playmakers.
Northwestern can take advantage, though, by going on long, sustained drives that can help wear down a D that doesn't have as many guys to rotate in as they would like.
Prediction: Northwestern 30, Indiana 28
Expect yet another close matchup between these two teams in a game that will likely be decided on a big "swing" play (e.g. turnover or long special teams return).
The 'Cats' D has been rather successful creating big plays as of late and can likely do just enough to put NU over the top.
NU fans know not to be too confident, though, as one only has to look to last year's game to see what can happen even coming into the game as a significant favorite.
This game will be hard-fought and hopefully the 'Cats are the ones who can get within one win of bowl eligibility and secure their third consecutive homecoming win.