Commentary: End of Season Report Card: Offense
by Jonathan Hodges

Although Northwestern did not field a prolific offense by any means in 2010, it was more than proficient with Dan Persa at the helm.  As everyone knows, Persa went down with a season-ending Achilles tendon injury after throwing the game-winning TD pass against Iowa four games into the second half of the season.  At that moment, the offense essentially underwent a complete transformation given that Persa accounted for 75% of both Northwestern's total offense and offensive touchdowns at the time when he went down.  The quarterback position then went from the hands of a fourth-year junior to a duo of freshmen (one redshirt, one true) and the result was an expected struggle.

But, there were some bright spots which will be highlighted below.  The running game picked up some down the stretch, which was fortunate given the huge drop off in the passing game, and one must credit the offensive line for opening up some holes.  And some of the younger skill players showed their potential; although they couldn't lead NU to any wins after Persa went down, the 'Cats showed that they have some dangerous weapons for the future.

Quarterbacks: B
   Midseason Grade: A-

After the break, Persa continued his masterful season and will officially end the year with the highest season completion percentage (73.5%) in Big Ten conference history.  The highlight of the second half was the fourth quarter 14-point comeback over then-ranked Iowa that propelled the Wildcats to their third consecutive winning season and put NU in a position to make some noise over the final two games of the regular season.  Unfortunately, it all came to an end for Persa at that point as he jumped up to see where his pass attempt headed following his final pass of the game and he ruptured his Achilles tendon.  At this point, Persa is well on his way to recovery and will reportedly be ready for some work during spring practice, a good sign for a QB who will likely be in the preseason hype heading into the 2011 season.

Unfortunately, redshirt freshman Evan Watkins just wasn't able to pick up the slack in the passing game as he finished the season completing just 51.4% of his passes, averaging 111.3 passing yards per start, with 2 TDs and 5 INTs, not great numbers and that made the passing game drop-off that much more significant given where Persa was when his season ended (Dan ended the year with 15 passing TDs to just 4 INTs and averaged 258.1 yards per game).  Watkins was touted as having the arm and size of a solid QB, but he just couldn't find a way of putting it together during his first 3 starts, all which came against bowl teams that ended with winning records (and one against the eventual Big Ten champion).

The NU coaching staff seemed to know that Watkins wouldn't be able to do it all by himself, particularly given that he isn't the most adept runner (although Evan did finish with a net positive rushing yards for the season, 61, and 2 TDs on the ground).  They put true freshman Kain Colter in the game with some snaps against Illinois and eventually increasing his workload into the TicketCity Bowl, where he had a breakout game, at least on the ground where he had 105 rushing yards and 2 rushing TDs.  In that game, it was clear that he has a great ability to run the football and can make plays.  Unfortunately, he wasn't trusted enough to be the full-time QB, throwing only 9 times over that 3 game span (with 3 completions for 38 yards, all against Texas Tech).  He does have great ability and even caught a ball for 32 yards in the bowl game, so it will be interesting to see how Northwestern uses him next season.

Overall, the QBs get dropped in terms of a grade to the lack of a viable backup, although it is notable that they got enough in the bowl game to keep it within reach.  There is potential there, but the drop off after Persa was just too huge.

Running Backs: B-
   Midseason Grade: D

After midseason, two running backs started to really emerge, and those were sophomore Mike Trumpy (who finished as the team's leading rushing on the year with 530 yards and had 4 TDs) and true freshman Adonis Smith (who finished third in rushing yards despite being tied for fifth in carries).  They finished with 4.6 and 4.6 yards per carry, respectively, a huge improvement over the RB average of 3.2 yards per carry at midseason.  And Trumpy made some big noise with an 80 yard run for TD against Illinois at Wrigley Field, NU's longest run from scrimmage in over 20 years.  And over the course of the final 7 games, NU's rushing offense improved from 73rd nationally (143.3 yards per game) to 58th (155.9 yards per game) despite facing some tougher competition.

Down the stretch Arby Fields virtually disappeared and, after the conclusion of the regular season, decided to transfer out of Northwestern (reportedly due primarily due to non-football reasons); Fields had the second-most carries of any RB after coming out as the opening day starter.  Jacob Schmidt was sidelined with an ankle injury until the bowl game and didn't get a carry during that contest; it is clear that he's been relegated to a minor role player behind Trumpy and Smith going into next season.  Also, senior Stephen Simmons finished his NU career with some carries in the final two contests but he definitely finished his career on a downswing as a running back.

While it is great that two viable running options have emerged, it is unfortunate that those aforementioned RBs didn't get into gear until so late in the season.  The grade definitely goes up after the performance near the end of the season and next year they'll need to prove that they can do the job over the course of an entire year in order to better balance the Northwestern offense and give the 'Cats a shot to contend in 2011.

Wide Receivers/Superbacks:  A-
   Midseason Grade: A-

The Wildcats had a slew of solid receiving options this year, led by all-Big Ten WR Jeremy Ebert (who finished the regular season as the Big Ten's leading receiver in terms of yards).  Unfortunately, and not do to them, their numbers dropped off at the end of the year after Persa went down.  That should not downgrade their whole-year performance, though.

In total, 7 different wide receivers and superbacks had double-digit receptions on the season with 6 of them averaging double-digit yards per reception.  Sidney Stewart capped his NU career second on the team in receiving yards, and while superback Drake Dunsmore didn't live up to high potential in 2010, he did place third on the team in receiving yards and came in second in receiving touchdowns with 5.  Speedy true freshmen Rashad Lawrence and Tony Jones look to be the future at WR as they both placed in that double-digit reception group and will likely be heavily utilized next season.

The potential is definitely there for this group to excel next season with Persa back at the helm as they have a bevy of talented options, including some not even mentioned like Demetrius Fields, who had the game-winning TD grab against Iowa.  This group will also have a nice mix of youngsters and experienced guys (Dunsmore and Ebert, who will both be seniors next year).

Offensive Line: C
   Midseason Grade: C-

The offensive line deserves some of the credit for improvement in the running game, although they gave some of that back with their lack of pass protection as their sacks allowed increased to 3.1 per game from 2.8 at midyear (finishing the season ranked 112th nationally in sacks allowed).  At the end of the year, the 'Cats averaged just 3.6 yards per carry overall (compared to NU's opponents who averaged 5.1 yards per carry).  There was some improvement, but the result was still far short of expectations.

Speaking of expectations, this unit will feature even more experience next season as C Ben Burkett and LT Al Netter will be seniors staring for their 4th season together and some of the other guys will have at least one full season of starting experience under their belts.  This squad must live up to their potential for the NU offense to excel and give the Wildcats a shot to make noise in 2011.  So far the OL has definitely fallen short of their high potential and fortunately they will have another chance to prove those recruiting ratings right.

Overall Grade:  B-
   Midseason Grade: B

The 2010 Northwestern offense was clearly based around Dan Persa, and when he was healthy he did just about everything he could to propel NU to victory.  And even without Persa, the NU offense was respectable, averaging over 20 points per game and helping lead Northwestern to their highest point output of the season in the TicketCity Bowl.  There are definitely weapons there to be used in the future and the 2011 season sets up very well with Persa returning, two solid RB options having emerged after testing numerous options the past couple of years, a bevy of talented receivers coming back, and an experienced OL that still hasn't lived up to its potential.

In terms of the 2010 season, it is still a bit disappointing that the Northwestern offense wasn't more consistent with Persa in the game and that they couldn't utilize all of their weapons throughout the year.  They'll have the opportunity to excel next season and there is no reason why they shouldn't.

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.