Indiana's defense can bend, but can it avoid breaking against Northwestern's precision passing attack? – IU Coach Bill Lynch has been pleased with some of the progress that his defense has made over the past several weeks, but he admits it won't be able to completely bottle up Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa.
"They're going to complete passes," Lynch said this week. "And our guys understand that and we have to be patient and show great discipline and keep playing."
Unlike plenty of other quarterbacks and other offensive systems, Persa and the Wildcat offense rely on finding players open on short, underneath routes. While they will look over the top a time or two during the game, their success is based on moving the chains, chewing up the clock, and taking what a defense gives them.
It's been a recipe for success in the past for Northwestern, and it's true again this season. Persa is completing a staggering 75.7 percent of his throws, which leads the conference by a large margin. That pinpoint accuracy has helped the Wildcats convert 50 percent of their third downs this year and also control the ball for nearly 4 ½ more minutes per game than their opponents.
So how does one go about stopping this type of offense? Patience is certainly a key, as a defense must avoid a blown coverage or a missed tackle that could turn a short gain into a touchdown. But coming up with a couple of big plays on defense is equally important. When a team is completing 76 percent of its throws, an opposing defense is going to need to create a couple of turnovers and come up with some negative plays that put Wildcat offense on its heels.
But there's a question as to whether or not Indiana has those type of players on the defensive side of the ball. The defense has been better about not making game-changing mistakes, but the big plays have still been lacking. Indiana ranks 10th in the Big Ten in both sacks (8) and interceptions (6), and those are types of plays it needs to make to keep Northwestern from scoring 35-plus points Saturday.
Will the fourth quarter once again be IU's undoing? – If you believe in trends, there's little doubt that the Indiana-Northwestern game will come down to the final minutes Saturday afternoon in Memorial Stadium. Each of the last six games have been decided by seven points or less, and in each of the past three seasons it's been by a field goal or less.
For a team that's coming off back-to-back Big Ten losses by a combined 58 points, that's good news. But the bad news is that there are very few signs to suggest IU learned much from last year's bevy of close losses that has carried over a taught them how to execute down the stretch to win close games.
On the season Indiana has been outscored 65-41 in the fourth quarter, easily its worst effort in any quarter. It mirrors the trend from a year ago, when IU was outscored by only 16 points on the season in the first halves of games, but by 56 in the second halves. Indiana has also given up 34 points in its last two fourth quarters.
If Indiana is going to pick up its first win of the Big Ten campaign and move within one win of bowl eligibility, it will need to find a way to out-play a very good Northwestern team in the fourth quarter. That hasn't been a strong suit for the Hoosiers, but they'll have to reverse that trend Saturday to be successful.
On Monday – Five Numbers to Note
On Tuesday – Four Names to Know
On Wednesday – Three Key Match-Ups
On Thursday – Two Big Concerns
On Friday – One Bold Prediction
N'WESTERN: Two Days and Counting
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