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Ten things to know about Northwestern

Northwestern has won its last five games against Indiana, but with the programs trending in opposite directions, that record could change this week, after Indiana bumped its record to 6-2 with a win against Nebraska last Saturday.

These are 10 things to know about Northwestern.

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Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald led the Wildcats to a Big Ten West title last season, but 2019 is not panning out as the program had hoped. (USA Today Images)
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald led the Wildcats to a Big Ten West title last season, but 2019 is not panning out as the program had hoped. (USA Today Images)

Defense keeps games competitive 

Despite several lackluster offensive performances – Northwestern doesn’t have a representative in the top-ten for categories of passing yards, rushing yards or receiving yards in the Big Ten – the defense has kept the Wildcats in games against good teams in 2019.

Fans that watched the 2016 Indiana season can relate.

Northwestern lost to Stanford 17-7, Wisconsin 24-15, Nebraska 13-10 and Iowa 20-0. The Wildcats also trailed Michigan State 14-3 at halftime before losing 31-10.

The number don’t heavily favor the Wildcat defense – No. 9 in Big Ten in scoring defense, No. 9 in total defense, No. 10 in rushing defense, No. 6 in pass defense. It’s also only recorded more sacks than Rutgers, intercepted just two passes and forced as many turnovers (8) as Indiana.

But the Northwestern defense has been able to force teams to draw out offensive drives and chew time off the clock in order to create opportunity for the offense. Northwestern possesses the ball for an average of just over 29 minutes per game despite having an offense that is second-to-last in first downs within the conference. The Wildcats hold onto the ball longer than Penn State, Michigan State, Purdue, Nebraska and others.

Quarterback shuffle

Northwestern quarterback Hunter Johnson was supposed to take over for Clayton Thorson this season after Thorson led Northwestern to a Big Ten West title in 2018, but this season has been underwhelming for the Wildcats and troubling for Johnson.

Johnson has seen his ups and downs this season, as he struggled against Stanford in the season-opener and his best game to date came in Northwestern’s only win of the season, when it beat UNLV behind a 12-of-25 game and the lone touchdown pass in 2018 from Johnson.

Johnson exited the game against Wisconsin with a knee injury, and he hasn’t played since. That was three-plus weeks ago. The Chicago Tribune reported Tuesday that he missed time because his mother is being treated for breast cancer.

He said he would like to play this weekend, but nothing has been confirmed in terms of who will play quarterback for the Wildcats.

The alternatives to Johnson haven’t been great. TJ Green relieved Johnson in the Stanford game, as Johnson was struggling, but season-ending foot surgery left junior Aidan Smith, a Fort Wayne native, as the starting quarterback.

Things have not gone well for Smith so far. In five games, he’s completed 47 percent of his passes for 453 yards, one touchdown and six interceptions.

Northwestern fans are longing for Johnson to return, as he was a five-star 2017 pro-style quarterback out of Indianapolis. He signed with Clemson but transferred to Northwestern.

Injuries hurting the Wildcats

Injuries have hit Northwestern in a big way this season, as a number of key contributors have missed time or will be expected to miss this weekend’s game.

Perhaps the biggest injury to note is big-bodied tight end Ben Skowronek, who has missed all but three games due to a lower body injury. Skowronek has been a key weapon in the Northwestern offense for a few years, particularly the last two seasons, when he caught 90 balls for more than 1,200 yards and eight touchdowns.

Last seasons’ starting running back Isaiah Bowser missed time earlier in the season, but he is back and only averaging 3.5 yards per carry and hasn’t found the endzone during his five games back.

Defensive ends Trevor Kent and Earnest Brown IV missed the Iowa game last week, and it was announced earlier this week that Brown is finished for the year. Fitzgerald said Kent is questionable.

Wide receiver JJ Jefferson is out this week against Indiana as well.

Who are the offensive weapons?

Well, there aren’t many. If Hunter Johnson plays, he could be considered an offensive weapon, but Northwestern hasn’t placed anybody in the top-ten for their respective skilled positions within the conference.

With Skowronek and Jefferson out for the week, the best receiving options left for the Wildcats are Riley Lees and Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman. Lees and Chiaokhiao-Bowman have combined for 34 catches and 266 yards. Jefferson is the only Wildcat to have caught a touchdown pass this season, with two, so there are no available Wildcats that have receiving touchdowns this year.

Isaiah Bowser was 2018’s starting running back, and he played fairly well, finishing the year with 866 yards and six touchdowns. This season isn’t going as well for Bowser, who missed a couple games this season and has split carries with backup running back Drake Anderson. Bowser is averaging just 3.5 yards per carry and doesn’t have a touchdown yet. Anderson has 436 yards and three touchdowns on 92 carries.

Much of the blame has been placed on the offensive line. Pro Football Focus only has Northwestern left tackle Rashawn Slater graded average or above average on the starting offensive line this year, and the Wildcats have allowed 18 sacks so far this season.

If Johnson and Smith were to be combined into one quarterback, they would combine for 245 dropbacks (fifth-most in the Big Ten), would feel pressure 78 times (fifth), would have a combined 35 percent adjusted completion percentage, would throw a conference-leading four interceptions when under pressure and combine for 170 passing yards when under pressure (third-lowest).

Defensive trio seals heart of the defense

Northwestern is the only school to have three defensive players among the top-15 in total tackles in the Big Ten so far this season. Those three are junior safety Travis Whillock (54), junior linebacker Paddy Fisher (52) and true freshman linebacker Bryce Gallagher (54).

Junior linebacker Chris Bergin (51) is No. 16.

That initial trio has formed the heart of a defense that is difficult to run or pass into and typically requires big plays to manufacture much of anything. However, Indiana’s strategy to pass the ball to the outside on short routes to supplement the run game should stretch out those key playmakers on the inside.

Teams, like Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska, have relied on finding big chunks of yardage up the middle of the line when playing Northwestern, though those have few and far between.

Lopsided turnover margin

Typically, with a strong defense and a weak offense, the turnover margin levels out, but for Northwestern, that hasn’t been the case so far. As Indiana coaches have noted this season, as their own defense had struggled to complete turnovers, plays involving turnovers are difficult to predict and often come in bunches.

While the Hoosiers have been able to find some success in turnovers in the last two games on the road, the Northwestern defense has struggled to force any turnovers in its Big Ten games. After forcing three total turnovers against Michigan State and Wisconsin, it hasn’t forced any in its last three games – Nebraska, Ohio State and Iowa.

Narrowing the turnover considerations, Northwestern also hasn’t forced many turnovers via interception. It’s only intercepted two passes this year and has forced six fumbles. Against an Indiana team that has thrown seven interceptions and lost three fumbles, Northwestern will have to reverse the way it takes the ball away from its opponents Saturday in Bloomington.

Joe Gaziano is a force

Northwestern has three capable pass rushers on its defense, in Joe Gaziano, Earnest Brown IV and Alex Miller, but it has yet to produce massive success on the Big Ten radar. Its 12 sacks are the second-lowest total in the conference, but Gaziano is a force at defensive end.

The senior has recorded 5.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss while forcing three fumbles and recovering two. He is one of the best edge rushers in the Big Ten and has been nearly even on rushes from the left side (86) and the right side (80).

Indiana tackles Caleb Jones and Matt Bedford have done a good job of sealing the edge of the line so far this season, as the Hoosiers have allowed just 11 sacks. Northwestern will be the IU offensive line’s biggest test since Michigan State in week five, though.

Brown is out with an undisclosed injury, which takes some of the load off of the offensive line.

Redzone defense could be challenge for Indiana

Indiana scored from the redzone five times against Nebraska last week, but oftentimes, when the Hoosiers got into the redzone, they needed to get creative on scoring plays. One play was a short pass to the outside to tight end Matt Bjorson, another was a sweep by David Ellis and another was a pass to the opposite corner of the endzone to wide receiver Ty Fryfogle. Only once was Indiana able to run the ball up the middle with Stevie Scott for a score near the end of the game.

It won’t get any easier against Northwestern, who is ranked fourth in redzone defense within the conference. The Wildcats have allowed a score on 77 percent of redzone opportunities and are tied for third in the conference in rushing touchdowns allowed from the redzone, with four.

The best way teams have scored on Northwestern in the redzone is via the pass, as it has surrendered eight passing touchdowns from the redzone. Indiana has proven an ability to do that so far, so more plays ran in the redzone at Nebraska should be expected in Bloomington on Saturday.

Kick return success, punting woes

Northwestern ranks No. 1 in the Big Ten in kickoff returns, with 24.3 yards per kickoff return. That also ranks No. 21 in the nation. Riley Lees handles the return duties for Northwestern on punts and kickoffs, but he has yet to break one open for a score. At best, Lees seems dangerous as a returner who can influence field position.

Indiana has played several teams consecutively that have had one issue on special teams, and Northwestern’s is its punting. The Wildcats are the worst punting team in the conference. Purdue has the most punts, with 53, but Northwestern’s 47 is among the top-five in the Big Ten. It nets an average of 36.4 yards per punt – an average of 37.4 yards off the punter’s foot and an average of 1.0 yard per return.

Pat Fitzgerald's record vs. Indiana

Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald is the longest tenured head coach Indiana will play this year, outdating Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio by one year.

During his time at Northwestern, he has taken the Wildcats to nine bowl games and won four of them. He’s also beaten Indiana in six of seven matchups. The current streak favors Northwestern by five games.

Northwestern’s current season is on pace to be the worst of Fitzgerald’s tenure. The only way to avoid tying or falling short of his lowest win total (4) at Northwestern is if the Wildcats beat Indiana on Saturday. A win would also keep their bowl hopes alive.

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