Commentary: 2010 Mid-Season Report Card: Summary
by Jonathan Hodges

Most Northwestern fans would seemingly take a 5-1 (1-1) record through the first half of a season, as it sets up the 'Cats nicely for a stretch run after a bye week.  But, that three point loss to Purdue stings due to the many missed opportunities that a victory would have given the 'Cats.

As mentioned through my first half report cards for each unit, the offense is doing pretty well for itself with Dan Persa at the helm, the defense may be bending but is not breaking, and despite being inconsistent, the special teams have some positives.  But, overall, the Wildcats just haven't been able to put it all together enough to build faith in this year's team.  The errors have seemingly built up each week, with some close wins being tolerated, but the most recent result, a loss to injury-riddled Purdue, being unacceptable.

Fitz has done some of his best work late in the year, going 9-4 in November, including an active 5 game November winning streak.  Hopefully he can find a way to get Northwestern coached up enough for such a run this year, which would be a big help in improving the spirits of the Wildcat faithful.

First Half MVP

Quarterback Dan Persa (1,663 passing yards, 10 TDs, 2 INTs, 78% completion rate; 72 carries for 380 yards, 3 TDs)

This one almost goes without saying, but Persa is easily Northwestern's most valuable player through six games, a position he'll likely carry the rest of the way.  Persa essentially is the Northwestern offense, as he's accounted for 76.7% of the Wildcats' total offense this season, and that's with about three quarters of garbage time in NU's two comfortable wins.  And despite what troubles the offensive line and special teams go through, Persa just goes out there, completes passes, and puts NU in a position to win.

Prior to the season there were doubters (I was not among them), but none remain as Persa came out and proved himself quickly.  His accurate passing and running ability give NU a unique weapon at QB, and his hard work and desire to win are apparent.  Make sure to watch him in the second half of the season as he's bound to make some big plays to lead NU to an upset win down the road.

Game of the First Half

Northwestern 29 @ Minnesota 28

It wasn't pretty, but it was a Big Ten road win, and as Ohio State can attest after losing in Madison despite their No. 1 ranking, every team will take those when they can get them.  The offense overcame two costly red zone turnovers (both by Persa) as well as a costly missed extra point to beat the Gophers after falling behind on the scoreboard for the first time this season.  And the defense did their part after giving up some big plays early by holding in the end when it mattered most.  It was a typical Cardiac 'Cat victory, and one that propelled NU to its second 5-0 start in three seasons after waiting 45 years for such a start to the season.

Surprise of the First Half

Northwestern 17 v. Purdue 20

No particular player or unit has been a big surprise for Northwestern through the first half: the offense looks similar to last year, but with Persa efficiently heading the unit, the defense is playing bend-but-don't-break football, and special teams have had some issues but also some strong points.  But, the one game that basically everyone expected Northwestern to win didn't come out in the 'Cats' favor.

NU headed into the game ranked (in the Coaches' Poll) and rolling with a 5-0 record.  Purdue came in just having lost their QB to a season-ending injury, forcing a redshirt freshman into duty.  The Boilermakers had also previously lost their starting RB and WR to season-ending injuries, with their remaining RBs banged up and another athletic WR sidelined with an injury.  Things looked grim, and few expected them to have enough offense to produce a win in an electric night game atmosphere in Evanston, even if their defense played lights-out.

But Purdue played out its gameplan perfectly, running a zone read offense, and taking advantage of some big explosion plays to put points on the board early.  Meanwhile, NU continued its penalty and special teams woes, including a costly muffed point and two holding calls deep in Purdue territory.  In the end, NU came up short thanks to many of its own issues; something rarely seen under Fitz who has, until this year, coached teams that play disciplined football and almost always find a way to win a game this close.

Impact Underclassmen

Redshirt freshman Punter Brandon Williams (26 punts, 40.3 yards per punt, 11 inside the 20, 3 50+ yard punts, 2 touchbacks, 4 fair catches)

It couldn't get much worse for the NU punting game than last season, when NU ranked 115th in net punting with a 31.7 net yards per punt average.  But inserting Williams in as the regular punter has had not just good, but great results this season as the 'Cats now rank 36th nationally in net punting at 37.9 yards per punt, a 6.2 yard improvement over last season.  When taking into consideration how many times per game NU has punted, on average, this season, that's a 26.7 yard swing in the 'Cats' favor, which has definitely helped the NU defense.

Northwestern's performance in special teams play, but punting in particular, will become more important through the rest of NU's tougher second half, so having a reliable punter back there and a strong coverage team in front sure helps the 'Cats' cause.

Grade Summary

Offense: B

Quarterbacks: A-
Running Backs: D
Wide Receivers/Superbacks: A-
Offensive Line: C-

Defense: B
Defensive Line: B-
Linebackers: B
Defensive Backs: C

Special Teams: C+
Place Kicking: C+
Returns: D
Punts, Kicks, and Coverage:

Coaching: B-

Northwestern came into the 2010 season with what had been touted as one of the deepest and most talented squads in NU football history.  The Wildcats faced a rather easy schedule and were favored in all six games.  Also, the 'Cats avoided the injury bug for the most part, keeping their key starters intact through those six games.  Despite all that, though, Northwestern lost one game, barely came away with wins in two road games, and had to recover an opponent's onside kick attempt to seal a non-conference home win.

The coaches harped on trying to improve the run game in 2010, yet there has been little to no change there: the running game is still non-existent and/or bad.  Special teams still give fans headaches with an unreliable kicking game and virtually no return game (especially on punts, where a promising freshman has yet to be given a chance to return one).  And Northwestern has made a bevy of mental errors, including numerous penalties, something rather uncharacteristic of Fitz-coached teams (NU currently ranks 100th nationally in penalties after averaging a rank of 19th through Fitz's first four years at the helm).

Hopefully some of these issues are correctable and NU has had a chance to address these during the bye week, as the 'Cats will need everything they have to be successful down a difficult stretch.  Fitz has shown himself to be a solid coach despite fluke losses, so hopefully he can lead Northwestern to some upset wins down the stretch towards yet another bowl game.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.