NU not brushing off underdogs

Tania Ganguli

The Northwestern football players and coaches have a saying they trot out when they risk overlooking a weaker team: “They have 85 scholarships too.”

That hasn’t been true about Indiana, at least until this year. This year’s

Indiana media guide

proudly boasts that the team has all 85 scholarships filled for the first time in three years — the first time since Gerry DiNardo moved to Indiana from coaching the XFL’s Birmingham Thunderbolts.

It’s a sign that the team, which has been relying on young, inexperienced talent, is starting to grow up.

Earlier this season the Hoosiers knocked off then-No. 24 Oregon in Eugene, Ore., getting 20 points off seven turnovers. Their last game against Michigan began close, but the Wolverines pulled away to win 30-10.

Those games and their last experience with the Wildcats means the Hoosiers are more confident than they’ve ever been coming into Evanston. The Cats squandered a 17-point lead last year and had to resort to defeating the Hoosiers in overtime.

“I guess they did kind of surprise us with the way they were able to run the ball on us,” NU safety Dominique Price said. “It kind of shocked us.”

Indiana returns senior quarterback Matt LoVecchio, sophomore tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis and senior receiver Courtney Roby.

LoVecchio threw 204 yards against the Cats last year, but had two interceptions, including a critical one in overtime. This season LoVecchio has averaged 144 yards per game and thrown six touchdowns.

Green-Ellis is on pace to match his 938 rushing yards last year, with 406 so far this season. He averages 81.2 yards per game, and his performance last year isn’t something NU’s defense has forgotten: As a true freshman he had three touchdowns and 136 yards against the Cats.

“We have a lot of expectations coming into this game, especially after last year the way they ran the ball on us,” Price said. “That’s something the defense prides itself on.”

One of LoVecchio’s favorite targets is Roby, one of Indiana’s most productive receivers.

The senior is on the cusp of becoming Indiana’s career leader in yards and catches — he needs 209 yards and eight receptions to secure that title.

Although the Hoosiers’ returning starters are mostly on offense, it’s the defense that has saved them in big games. And it’s the defeCots nse that DiNardo is expecting to step up on Saturday.

“Even though Northwestern holds the edge in this series historically, we have played them close the last couple of years,” DiNardo said. “We are back to work today, trying to prepare so we can play a good game on Saturday.”

The Hoosiers may be optimistic, but they haven’t won a game since that victory over Oregon.

Their 83 percent red-zone efficiency and No. 1-ranked punt returning have not helped them in their three consecutive losses. Against Michigan State they couldn’t hold a 13-point lead, and lost 30-20.

DiNardo might be trying to prove his team can hold its own against the team that just knocked off Ohio State, but inside NU’s locker room this is just another game.

“Probably outside of our football community it would seem that we have a lot to prove, that (the Ohio State game) could have been a fluke or something like that,” Price said. “But our approach to every game is the same, and we feel like we should come out and play our best every game.”

Reach Tania Ganguli at [email protected].