There are a couple of pretty big Big Ten games this weekend in Columbus, Ohio, and Madison, Wis., but don't expect fans from either Indiana or Northwestern to notice.
While upstart Illinois is trying to knock Ohio State from atop the national rankings and Michigan is looking to win its eighth straight to set up a Big Ten title showdown against the Buckeyes next weekend in Ann Arbor, Indiana and Northwestern are meeting with plenty on the line as well.
The Hoosiers (6-4/2-4) and Wildcats (5-5/2-4) meet on Saturday at Noon at Northwestern's Ryan Field with their bowl hopes on the line. For Indiana, it's all about winning a seventh game and all but guaranteeing itself its first bowl bid since 1993. With a win Indiana can finish no worse than in a tie for eighth in the conference, which should be plenty to get a shot at the postseason thanks to seven guaranteed Big Ten bowl berths as well as a couple of other bowls that will likely be looking for at-large spots.
For Northwestern, this game marks its best chance to get a sixth win and give itself a shot at the postseason. Coach Pat Fitzgerald's team closes the regular season next weekend in Champaign against 7-3 Illinois, so it would appear their odds of beating an IU team that hasn't won in Evanston since 1993 are better than knocking off the Illini in the regular season finale.
Based on recent history, this game should live up to the drama. While Northwestern has won the last three meetings, each game has been decided by seven points or less, and the last two have gone to overtime.
In 2002, Northwestern missed a potential game-tying 22-yard field goal in the closing minutes, but then forced IU into a three-and-out and then mounted a game-winning touchdown drive to escape with a 41-37. In 2003, IU quarterback Matt LoVecchio was intercepted in the end zone in overtime, and Northwestern's Jason Wright followed that up by scoring to secure a 37-31 win. Then, in the two teams' most recent encounter in 2004, Northwestern forced overtime with a field goal in the final minute; converted a fourth down and eventually scored in the first overtime to force a second extra period; converted another fourth down in the second overtime on a 16-yard touchdown run by Noah Herron; and then sacked LoVecchio on fourth down to put away a 31-24 win in Evanston.
With that in mind, the outcome of this weekend's game is anyone's guess. Both teams are desperate for a win, but both have been struggling as of late, with IU dropping three of its last four and Northwestern its last two.
The one thing fans can probably count on is a wide-open, up-and-down affair that won't be decided until the closing minutes. If they're not turning the ball over, both offenses have been highly productive this season with relying on talented quarterbacks Kellen Lewis and C.J. Bacher.
Ultimately, Northwestern has a couple of things in its favor. First of all it's playing at home, and Indiana has lost its last two road games by a combined score of 80-24. The Wildcats also have tailback Tyrell Sutton back from injury, and he's more than capable of running for 100-150 yards and making the Wildcat offense even more potent. Indiana has capable runners as well, but Marcus Thigpen, Bryan Payton and Josiah Sears and the IU rushing attack doesn't strike the same sort of fear as Northwestern's might. With that in mind, Northwestern gets an ever-so-slight edge in this weekend's contest.
HoosierNation.com Prediction: Northwestern 35, Indiana 30
What's coming up:
On Monday – Five Numbers to Note
On Tuesday - Four Players to Know
On Wednesday – Three Big Concerns
On Thursday – Two Key Match-Ups
On Friday – One Bold Prediction
NORTHWESTERN: One Day and Counting
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