NU gets third chance at bowl

Matt Baker

On paper, Indiana and Northwestern are almost mirror images.

The Hoosiers (6-4, 2-4 Big Ten) come into Saturday’s game at Ryan Field ranked near the top of the conference in offense and near the bottom in defense. Ditto for the Wildcats (5-5, 2-4).

Both teams are defined by their dynamic passing attacks. Indiana quarterback Kellen Lewis has thrown for 23 touchdowns and nine interceptions to lead the Big Ten’s third-ranked passing offense and make the Hoosiers bowl-eligible for the first time since 1994.

“Kellen is playing at a really high level,” NU coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “He is making great decisions with the football. He is a tremendous athlete that plays within the framework of what they’re doing. He doesn’t try to force things.”

Part of Lewis’ game comes from his ability to move in the backfield. Lewis leads the Hoosiers in rushing with 587 yards and five touchdowns.

Sophomore defensive end Corey Wootton said NU will need to apply pressure on the line to keep Lewis in the pocket and stop his scrambling.

“He can make a lot of plays throwing and running, so this week we’re going to put an emphasis on containing the rushing,” Wootton said. “I feel like his comfort is more outside the pocket. That’s where he makes most of his plays, so if we can keep him in the pocket, I feel like we’ll do a good job of stopping him.”

But Indiana’s passing offense has another big reason for its success: wide receiver James Hardy.

The 6-foot-7 target is second in the country with 13 touchdown catches and is a semi-finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, presented to the country’s most outstanding wide receiver.

As a junior, he already ranks first in school history with touchdown catches (33) and needs just one catch and 28 yards to catapult into first place in receptions and yards.

“He’s going to catch the ball,” Fitzgerald said. “You’ve just got to make sure you tackle him, and you’ve got to make sure he doesn’t make you pay over the top. When you make an offense execute 12 or 13 plays, you give yourself an opportunity as a defense to be successful.”

While Indiana’s passing attack is soaring, NU is looking to regain its old form Saturday.

After racking up almost 1,000 yards in two weeks in October, NU’s passing game has faltered. In the past two games, junior quarterback C.J. Bacher has completed 48-of-85 passes for a combined 464 yards – 56 yards less than he had against Michigan State.

If the Cats hope to improve on Bacher’s six-sack, three-interception outing against Iowa, they will need a strong performance from an offensive line that has given up 30 sacks on the season – second-most in the Big Ten.

The Hoosiers’ defense is ranked second in the conference with 38 sacks, led by defensive lineman Greg Middleton, who leads the Big Ten with 13.5 sacks.

“I watched a couple of the games, and he’s a tremendous athlete,” senior guard Adam Crum said. “He’s one of those guys that, he’s got that gift – whatever you want to call it – innate sense. He has a nose for the ball. He makes a lot of plays. We don’t want to give up any more sacks to him.”

Reach Matt Baker at [email protected]