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

2010 was an up and down year for the 'Cats that featured close football games almost the entire way through the schedule with Northwestern even staying true to form by putting up a fight until the bitter end in a bowl game where they were a substantial underdog.

At the beginning there was a hot start against a relatively weak schedule immediately followed by the annual "fluke loss" to a very banged-up Purdue team.  In the middle, the Wildcats had excellent first halves against both Michigan State, who would go on to share the conference title, and Penn State before breaking down late and eventually losing both games.  NU did earn a tough road victory at Indiana between those two.  And down the stretch, the 'Cats pulled off the upset of their season by once again beating Iowa, although it also meant the loss of Dan Persa to a freak Achilles tendon injury after he threw the game-winning touchdown pass.  Although they would lose their final two games by large margins, NU had secured its third consecutive winning season for the first time since 1958-1960 (under Ara Parseghian).

Many, including myself, knew that the 2010 Wildcats could have a strong season, and NU fell just short of my predicted 8 wins in the regular season.  Looking ahead, Northwestern will have to plug in some guys here and there on defense but will be returning many players from this year's team and will most definitely have an opportunity to make some noise in the new Legends Division of the Big Ten in 2011.

Season MVP:  QB Dan Persa
   First Half MVP: QB Dan Persa

It would be hard to think of anyone else as the season MVP even though Persa missed the final 3 games.  When he went out, Dan accounted for over 75% of Northwestern's total offense and offensive touchdowns.  It's also notable that the 'Cats were in every single game before he was lost for the year, going 7-3 and holding a second half lead in each of the 3 losses.  After he went out it was made even more clear how valuable Persa was: the 'Cats failed to even reach a tie in the second half of all 3 games, breaking a 26 consecutive game streak the other way.  Although the offense was serviceable it obviously was just a shell of itself without Persa behind center.

Needless to say, 'Cats fans are very excited about next season when Persa should be in the running for both conference and national awards after his first team All-Big Ten QB performance in 2010.

Game of the Year:  Northwestern 21 vs. Iowa 17
   Game of the First Half: Northwestern 29 @ Minnesota 28

It was undoubtedly NU's best win of the season as they defeated a ranked Iowa team in Evanston to secure a bowl berth and a winning season while also continuing to build themselves as Iowa's nemesis.  The 'Cats played great defense early and held a 7-3 halftime lead, and although the defense caved in a bit during the third quarter by allowing 2 Hawkeye touchdowns, Northwestern stormed back in the fourth behind Dan Persa to pull ahead with the D securing the victory at the very end.

Impact Underclassman:  PR/KR/WR Venric Mark
   Impact Underclassman of the First Half: P Brandon Williams

Williams did end with a solid season, helping the 'Cats to finish 28th nationally in net punting, a huge improvement over last season's 115th place ranking.  But the fact is that Mark had a huge impact in the return game that hasn't been a spark for the 'Cats much at all during Fitz's tenure.  Mark single-handedly improved NU's punt return ranking 59 spots over the second half of the season while also significantly improving the kickoff return game, ranking 30th at the end of the year.  He had the 'Cats' first special teams return touchdown since 2007 and put the NU offense in better positions on multiple other occasions.  Like Persa, NU fans will very much be looking forward to seeing him next year.

End of Season Grade Summary

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

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

Special Teams: B
Placekicking: C
Returns: B
Punts, Kicks, and Coverage:

Coaching: B

Although Northwestern had a winning season for the third straight year, there were definitely some deficiencies as well as some potential wins left on the field.  The defense completely broke down at the end of the season despite the reputed increase in talent and speed on that side of the ball in recent years.  The MSU and PSU second half breakdowns were extremely frustrating.  And the almost inexplicable loss to Purdue allowed the streak of bad losses to continue.

Even so, NU continues to play from behind with its stringent recruiting requirements and relatively smaller resources yet also continues to successfully compete in the Big Ten.  It's hard to scoff at making three consecutive bowls and Fitz coming out of his fifth season as NU head coach with an overall winning record (and a Big Ten record at 18-22, very close to .500), especially when his two predecessors/mentors were unable to put together sustained success.

There are definitely improvements that can be made but Fitz is still a relatively young coach and hopefully we will continue to see learning and progress from him and his team, leading to the big question for next season: can he take Northwestern to the next level (a Big Ten championship)?

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.