On a week-by-week basis, Northwestern and Indiana have been complete opposites this season.
The Wildcats (3-3, 2-1 Big Ten) have lost, lost, won, lost, won and won. The Hoosiers (3-3, 1-2) have won, won, lost, won, lost and lost.
But even polar opposite first halves of their respective regular seasons have brought the two Big Ten foes to the same point — 3 wins, 3 losses — with potential to break out as solid teams in the second half.
A mere 1.5-point spread separates the two teams entering this Saturday’s homecoming matchup in Evanston, when Indiana will seek to end a four-game losing streak against NU that dates back to 2009.
Indiana’s biggest strength: Its defense. Under the eye of new defensive coordinator Tom Allen, the Hoosiers’ defense has been one of the biggest surprises of the Big Ten this season, moving from 121st in the nation last season to 49th this season.
Although the team lost its last two games, both against elite opponents — 38-17 vs. No. 2 Ohio State, then 27-22 vs. No. 8 Nebraska this past weekend — its defense recorded arguably its best two performances yet. The unit allowed just 19 completions combined for Heisman Trophy candidates J.T. Barrett (9-for-21 for 93 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception vs. Indiana) and Tommy Armstrong (10-for-26, 208 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions).
Led by linebacker Tegray Scales, who ranks fifth in the country in solo tackles, and cornerback Rashard Fant, who ranks third in the country with 10 pass breakups, the Indiana defense is improving with each week and will pose a stiff challenge for Clayton Thorson, Justin Jackson and Austin Carr.
Indiana’s biggest weakness: The offensive side of the ball, long the staple of Indiana football, has faded almost as quickly as its defense has risen.
The offensive line lost four starters from last season and has struggled in the big, physical trench battles of the Big Ten. That’s hurting the Hoosiers’ run game, as former 1,000-yard running back Devine Redding has begun to slow down (135 yards in the last two games vs. 245 in the first two) and the Hoosiers have sorted through a half-dozen other runners without finding anyone particularly effective.
Meanwhile, first-year starting quarterback Richard Lagow has proven interception-prone: he’s tossed nine picks in his last four games, including five in an ugly 33-28 home loss to Wake Forest on Sept. 24. Lagow does, however, still rank second in the conference in passing yards to date.
Indiana’s biggest question mark: Can the Hoosiers take advantage of their steady improvement and soft second-half schedule to jump into the Big Ten’s upper echelon?
A long, bleak period of Hoosier football — which includes just one winning season (a 7-6 campaign in 2007) in the last 21 years — appears to be on the verge of giving way to a much brighter era.
Indiana stands at .500 with just one more tough game (at Michigan), should-win games against Maryland, Rutgers and Purdue and could-win games against NU and Penn State comprising the rest of its remaining schedule. A strong closing stretch, starting with a win in what should be a well-matched showdown on Saturday against the Cats, could launch the Hoosiers into unprecedented realms of success.
But will Indiana be able to overcome its lack of experience and capitalize on the opportunity to change the reputation of the program moving forward?