Gameday: Chappell’s pistol offense looks to gun down Cats

Colin Becht

Going along with Indiana’s offensive formation, Northwestern’s matchup with the Hoosiers on Saturday should be a shootout.

Utilizing Indiana’s pistol offense, quarterback Ben Chappell has the seventh-most passing yards in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Wildcats have their own star quarterback in junior Dan Persa, the FBS’s ninth-most efficient passer.

Combine these cannon-like arms with the Big Ten’s second-worst (NU) and fourth-worst ­(Indiana) passing defenses, and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect points.

Persa said he’s not concerned about the prospect of a shootout and is only focusing on the scoring he can affect.

“I’m not playing defense against Ben, and he’s not doing the same against me,” Persa said. “I’m going to worry about what I can control on offense and let the defense do its job.”

After giving up 352 passing yards to Michigan State last week, NU’s secondary will once again be tested.

“You’ve got a fifth-year quarterback who’s one of the most prolific passers in the country, and then you’ve got not only three receivers, but their tight ends are playing very well,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “They’ve been throwing the ball with a lot of efficiency.”

Crucial to slowing Indiana’s passing attack, ranked sixth in the FBS with 313.6 yards per game, will be making Chappell uncomfortable in the pocket. In losses to Illinois and Ohio State, Chappell threw five picks in total due largely to tremendous pressure that forced him to rush his throws.

“You’ve got to get to the quarterback and put pressure on him,” defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said. “(Illinois) got themselves in position, and they made some plays. We have to make plays when we get in position.”

However, simply getting pressure on Chappell may not be enough to cause him to panic and make mistakes.

“Chappell’s actually a tough guy,” senior cornerback Justan Vaughn said. “He’ll sit in the pocket despite whatever pressure is coming at him or whatever hit they lay on him.”

Hankwitz said Chappell manages to complete a lot of passes despite being under pressure because he doesn’t adjust his mechanics to get a pass off quickly.

“He doesn’t chuck and duck,” Hankwitz said. “I’ve been real impressed with him.”

Along with Chappell’s success, wide receivers Damarlo Belcher and Tandon Doss have excelled as well, combining for more than 1,000 yards receiving and six touchdowns.

“They’ve got a great core of receivers that are big, athletic,” Hankwitz said. “They’ve got speed and size.”

The two receivers certainly will have a height advantage as Belcher stands at 6 foot 5 and Doss at 6 foot 3.

Indiana presents the unique challenge of the pistol offense, in which the quarterback stands in shortened shotgun, with the running back a few yards behind him.

“It’s a little bit different because the quarterback’s back is turned to the line of scrimmage so the ball is hidden, and they’ve done some nice deceptive things out of it,” Fitzgerald said.

The Cats and Hoosiers have a history of playing games that come down to the wire. The past six contests, of which NU won five, have been decided by just 23 points combined. The Cats trailed Indiana 28-3 in the first half last year before completing the largest comeback in school history to win 29-28.

“If past history is any indication of where this one’s going to go, you better buckle it up and be ready for a wild ride,” Fitzgerald said.

The Cats enter the game in what Fitzgerald called “a foul mood” after losing their last two games despite leading both in the fourth quarter.

Persa said the team feels under pressure to return to its winning ways.

“We’re all sick of losing,” he said. “It’s been three weeks since we’ve won, and it feels like forever.”

The sickness of dropping the past two games only motivates the Cats, senior defensive tackle Corbin Bryant said.

“With the bad taste that we have in our mouth from the weekend, we’re just going to go down to Bloomington and take it out on them,” he said.

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