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September 28, 2012Northwestern is 4-0 after disposing of its non-conference foes, but are the Wildcats ready for the challenge of the Big Ten season?
We will begin to find out on Saturday, when Indiana (2-1) comes to Ryan Field (11 a.m., BTN).
Indiana is coming off a disastrous 1-11 2011 campaign, as well as a hearbreaking loss to Ball State two weeks ago. But the Hoosiers also have had two weeks to prepare for the Wildcats and have given NU all it could handle in recent years.
Will the Wildcats extend their winning streak to five and, in all probability, crack the Top 25? Our crack staff knows the answer.
Northwestern wins if They take care of the ball don't let the Indiana defense off the hook. Stupid turnovers will kill you in a game you're supposed to win, so if the Cats protect the ball and run it the way they have been, they should be able to control the game.
Northwestern loses if The offense sputters a la BC. This one game where NU can't afford to trade FGs for TDs as Kevin Wilson's team WILL score the ball.
The bottom line: I think the Cats have a more talented, composed, and better coached team. This should not be close, but in me there is fear. So much fear.
Prediction: Northwestern 35 Indiana 24
Northwestern wins if It continues to run the football with consistency. Northwestern currently ranks 27th nationally in rushing offense. How long has it been since Northwestern had a 1,000-yard back? That would be 2006. Venric Mark is on pace for 1,197 yards and 12 touchdowns. He changes the complexion of the game every time he steps on the field.
Northwestern loses if It's not prepared for Indiana's multi-faceted Cameron Coffman or Nate Sudfeld could split time behind center -- and up-tempo offense. Were the back-to-back strong defensive performances against Vanderbilt and Boston College a teasing mirage? Or was that just showing the potential of the unit? Time will tell.
The bottom line: Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. Preach all the cliches: Take it one game at a time, just try to go 1-0 this week. Don't worry about Penn State and Minnesota, keep the focus on W.I.N. -- Indiana. Games in this series are seemingly always close; seven of the last eight have been decided by less than a touchdown.
Prediction: Northwestern 31 Indiana 27
Northwestern wins if They win the third down battles. The Wildcats currently have converted on 53 percent of third down tries this season. They have also improved from allowing 3rd down conversions 50 percent of the time last season to just under 40 percent this year. They need to continue to extend their own drives and snuff out any momentum for opposing offenses..
Northwestern loses if The front seven cannot establish enough pressure on Indiana's two quarterbacks. Coffman and Sudfeld are completing almost 70 percent of their passes since Tre Roberson broke his leg. If the two of them settle into a rhythm, Northwestern could be in their first shootout since Syracuse.
The bottom line: Kain Colter is in for a big day. He tore up the Hoosiers in a 59-38 win as a receiver last season, but the Indiana defense is not good enough yet to find a way to stop him as a scrambler. The defense will not look as strong as it has the past three weeks but will continue to be clutch in the red zone to pull out the win.
Prediction: Northwestern 41 Indiana 28
Northwestern wins if The offense comes out with a solid balance of pass and run and the secondary can show marked improvement to shut down Indiana's passing game.
Northwestern loses if The offense is slow to get untracked and the Hoosiers find the usual holes in the Wildcats' secondary.
The bottom line: The battle of Randy Walker disciples should come down to the team with the better athletes. Look for the Cats' up-tempo offense to eventually take its toll on the Hoosiers' defense.
Prediction: Northwestern 31 Indiana 17
Northwestern wins if The offense moves the ball consistently and is able to cash in its red-zone opportunities with touchdowns instead of field goals. Northwestern hasn't quite been able to put it all together on offense quite yet. Against Indiana, they'll need to be more productive than they have been.
Northwestern loses if It doesn't allow Coffman (or Sudfeld) to burn them for big plays in the passing game. The Cats' pass defense has been pretty impressive over the last three games, but the memory of the horror show at the Carrier Dome still gives me pause.
The bottom line: Everyone pencils this game in as an automatic W, but Indiana has been a handful for NU in recent years. Last season, the Cats won comfortably but the Hoosiers still scored 38 points. In the years before that, the Cats won by three, two, one and three points.
Prediction: Northwestern 30 Indiana 24