Commentary: 2011 Mid-Season Report Card
by Jonathan Hodges

2011 has certainly been a disappointing year for the Northwestern Wildcats (2-4, 0-3) at the midway point of the season. This team came in loaded on offense with experienced upperclassmen all over the two-deep, while also bringing in some key seniors at each level on defense. The schedule looked to be quite manageable, and the expectation was clearly to reach at least 7 or 8 wins, make a potentially win-able bowl game, and possibly make some noise in the newly formed Big Ten Legends Division.

Instead, the offense sputtered at the hands of Kain Colter against Army and the defense, particularly the secondary and pass rush, have completely fallen apart. The offense has picked up after the return of Dan Persa at QB, but not enough to make up for the defensive ineptitude. And, although the Cardiac 'Cats continue to live up to that moniker, they are not doing so in the normal way, instead giving up two second half leads in Big Ten play and being outscored by a cumulative 38 points in fourth quarters this season. The Wildcats are now riding their first four game losing streak since Fitz's first season as head coach in 2006 and are on the brink of failing to obtain bowl eligibility for the first time since that very season.

Now, onto the unit grades from the first half, none of which will be that stellar given NU's record.

Quarterbacks: B+

Northwestern's quarterbacks haven't done that bad of a job, especially considering Kain Colter was forced into the starting role after Dan Persa experienced a setback in his recovery from a torn Achilles' tendon in June, leaving him out for the first three games of the season. Colter has shown his speed and shifty-ness on the ground by leading NU in rushing yards (370) and TDs (5), while also sporting NU's longest run of the season (37). Meanwhile, his passing game looks competent (65.7% completion rate, 2 TDs and just 1 INT, in the first game of the season). Now, he seems to be excelling in a mutli-purpose role that sees him as an option QB and also slot WR (he has 9 catches on the year for 121 yards). His biggest blemish was that ugly loss to Army in which he had just 146 yards of total offense (just 89 through the air on 23 attempts) as he obviously failed to get the offense going like NU needed (the 'Cats were 3-of-12 on third down conversion tries).

Persa, meanwhile, is his usual accurate self, completing a stellar 74.2% of passes and already tossing 5 TDs in 97 attempts (to just 2 INTs). Although his contribution to the ground game seems to be gone thanks to the aforementioned injury (he has -16 net yards on the ground thanks to 11 sacks in his three games back), he's helped the NU offense churn out 30.0 points per game against some decent Big Ten teams (Illinois, Michigan, and Iowa; all of whom have competent defenses). He has been a boon to the NU offense and the team as a whole, leading NU to second half leads against two undefeated (at the time) Big Ten teams and keeping NU in the Iowa game. His biggest drawback was one very costly throw in the red zone at Iowa that was intercepted and returned for a TD, which was at least a 10 point swing (if not 14) and was a huge factor in the outcome of the game.

Finally, backup redshirt freshman Trevor Siemian has looked to be the heir apparent to Persa's role as the passing QB, going 11-of-16 in limited action and tossing 3 TDs (he also has 10.6 yards per pass attempt, while NU as a whole is averaging just 7.4). While he certainly isn't Persa, the future doesn't look to bad.

Running Backs: B-

While the running backs haven't been stellar, they have been a solid improvement over recent seasons. As a group, the RBs are averaging a decent 4.4 yards per carry and have a combined 8 TDs on the ground for the year. Unfortunately, Northwestern's most explosive runner at RB, Mike Trumpy (who was averaging 5.2 yards per carry), went down for the year with an ACL tear on a non-contact injury at Illinois. True sophomore Adonis Smith and true freshman Treyvon Green have filled in well, but still don't hit the hole with the same speed and decisiveness as Trumpy (they average 4.1 and 4.3 yards per carry, respectively).

Jacob Schmidt is clearly in a different role for the 'Cats as a situational back: he excels at blocking, is a solid receiver out of the backfield (he's third on the team with 12 receptions this year and averages a nice 10.2 yards per reception), and is NU's best option for short yardage situations (remember the leg-churning 6 yard TD run at Illinois to give NU back a lead late in the game). With the Smith and Green being relatively small but speedy backs, NU needs Schmidt to play his role.

Overall, this unit is doing its job fairly well, and although they lack the ability to hit the holes quickly and run away from the defense in the second level, they have enough speed to gain a fair amount of yards and this unit looks to be the best set of RBs since Tyrell Sutton graduated after the 2008 season.

Wide Receivers/Superbacks: B+

Like the quarterbacks, the WR corps have had a solid year. They have hauled in 10 TD passes, led by senior Jeremy Ebert (39 receptions for 431 yards and 6 scores) who looks to be on his way to all-conference honors for the second consecutive season. Drake Dunsmore is NU's second leading receiver and has hauled in 2 scores. But it doesn't end there as true freshman Christian Jones looks to be a nice deep threat, averaging 17.8 yards per catch, having passed up Rashad Lawrence for a starting spot. Demetrius Fields is reliable on the outside (11 catches for 122 yards) as well.

One oft-unnoticed area is in run blocking, where this unit has done a fairly good job this year. They have allowed Colter and the running backs to get to the edge without free defenders at the first level, and the results have shown in the improved running game.

But, this unit also deserves a downgrade for a performance against Michigan that was a factor in the loss: Dunsmore tipped a ball in the air that turned into an INT, Ebert lost a fumble while fighting for a couple more yards, and Lawrence dropped two would-be-TDs just before halftime (including one ball that hit him in the numbers while open in the back of the end zone).

Offensive Line: C

This is an experience-laden group that features two seniors who have started every game since they began collegiate play as redshirt freshmen (Ben Burkett, now at RG, and Al Netter at LT) along with some top level recruits who have a good amount of playing time under their belts (Patrick Ward at RT and Brian Mulroe at LG). Redshirt freshman Brandon Vitabile has not made many big mistakes since pushing his way into the center spot over Burkett.

While the run game is definitely improved, with some thanks definitely falling to this unit, they have allowed a good amount of pressure to get through to the QB, somewhat thanks to individual breakdowns (the same kind of breakdowns seen last season in an utterly underwhelming performance). NU now ranks 102nd nationally in sacks allowed (2.83 per game) and the pressure has gotten to Persa more than once (forcing both of his costly turnovers at Iowa); Dan has been sacked 11 times in his three games back.

While Netter and Burkett have shown flashes and have earned almost four years of consecutive starts, this unit as a whole has certainly underwhelmed, particularly considering some of the recruiting pedigree that they brought into the program (particularly Ward). Offensive line play has been a focus for three years running and has resulted in modest gains, at best. Yes, Northwestern's offense brings unique challenges (like little or no help blocking from TEs or RBs on many plays), but that does not excuse continued individual breakdowns that often lead to costly negative plays. It will be interesting to see if Fitz allows this trend to continue following the season or if he decides to shake up the assistant coaching staff to try and achieve better line play.


The 'Cats have done fairly well on offense, running a relatively balanced attack (181.8 yards per game on the ground, 40th nationally, and 223.5 yards per game through the air, 68th nationally), with both total offense (52nd nationally) and scoring offense (28.3 points per game, 62nd nationally) good enough to give the 'Cats a shot to win all of their games thus far. Although there has been questionable play calling at times and one game in which it virtually disappeared, the offense has overall been producing well, particularly against some of the tougher defenses faced (24 points against Michigan, 35 against Illinois). The 2 QB system of Persa and Colter seems to be working well, and the ground game has improved over recent years. And the prospects are certainly good for the second half of the year, especially if Persa can regain some speed as his Achilles' tendon continues to heal. Unfortunately, this unit has committed some costly turnovers in its last two games and just plain failed to produce at Army, which is why this unit warrants a good but non-stellar grade.

Defensive Line: C-

The only reason that this unit isn't graded lower is that they have been respectable against the run; they have allowed 4.6 yards per carry, but without a couple "explosion runs" (the first play from scrimmage this year by BC and a garbage time run by EIU) they have allowed 4.1 yards per carry. But, those numbers aren't exactly stellar (the nation's best defenses allow at or under 2 yards per carry), and the rest of their play has been pretty bad.

Speaking of the rest of the line's play, the pass rush has been virtually non-existent: NU ranks 77th nationally in sacks and hasn't generated a sack over the last two games and is 96th in TFLs (4.8 per game). Many of the line's 7 sacks came early in the year against lesser competition; they have been pretty well handled by Big Ten offensive lines and last week never got that close to taking down Iowa's quarterback. This despite having a reputed pass rusher in Vince Browne, who seems to pad his sack stats against weaker teams. At the other DE spot, Tyler Scott has been good, but hasn't shown enough ability to get to the QB. Niko Mafuli has done a good job in significantly more playing time this year by clogging the middle, but has generated few stats (6 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 2 QB hurries). Jack DiNardo has likely been their biggest contributor (11 tackles, 3 TFLs, 2 sacks, and 1 pass break-up) in limited time thanks to an injury in the opening game, but he hasn't been the spark, either. Backup DTs Will Hampton and Chance Carter are gaining valuable experience but have been very quiet so far, while backup DEs Kevin Watt and Quentin Williams haven't been able to do much either when inserted into the lineup.

When teams pass like crazy on the 'Cats (see NU's nation-worse 9.8 yards per pass attempt allowed) it's easy to blame the defensive backfield, but the game is won or lost in the trenches, and Northwestern's complete lack of any pressure up front certainly doesn't help matters. And with the run defense seemingly headed south (Iowa averaged a troubling 5.5 yards per carry, NU's worst game of the season versus the run), this unit could very well dip into failing territory soon.

Linebackers: C+

The linebackers are the best unit on the defense by far because they are generally doing their jobs: making tackles. MLB David Nwabuisi and OLB Bryce McNaul are one-two on the team in tackles (48 and 45, respectively), which is a welcome change from the recent past when a safety was almost always at the top of the tackles list. The other OLB spot has been in flux, but Chi Chi Ariguzo, Ben Johnson, and Collin Ellis have combined for 39 tackles there and have made some nice plays (combined for 3 TFLs and a sack).

Despite this proficiency in tackling, they have had their negative moments, like against Army when they were seemingly unable to bring the ballcarrier down quickly, allowing them to get a few extra yards in order to extend drives and bleed time off of the clock. They have also been spotty in forcing big plays: they have combined for just 1 INT and 2 sacks, which must be higher if Northwestern wants to be more effective on defense.

Overall, there is good depth at the position but a lack of big playmakers so far; Ellis looks promising but missed the first three games and has been rotated in and out. Down the stretch they will need to make big plays, including finishing the job when blitzing, in order to increase their grade.

Secondary: F

This grade is pretty clear; although they've had virtually no help from the defensive front in terms of pressure on the QB, it hasn't taken those opposing QBs very long to find wide open receivers. There is the aforementioned nation's worst yards per pass attempt number, along with the nation's 108th ranked pass efficiency defense and 99th ranked pass yards per game allowed (even with Army's 1 completion for 6 yards included). The only thing they have done is grabbed a few interceptions (6 on the year), other than that it's been an absolute failure.

Seniors Jordan Mabin and Brian Peters are just a small part of the problem as they've been shutting down their men while making plays (they have combined for 3 INTs, 4 PBUs, and rank fifth and third on the team in tackles, respectively). The problems have been first time starter and converted WR/RB Jeravin Matthews at CB and redshirt freshman Ibraheim Campbell at S. Matthews was replaced by junior Demetrius Dugar at the end of the Michigan game, but the problems continued at Iowa, where two completely blown coverages allowed easy TDs for the Hawkeyes. They are inexperienced and it is certainly showing on the field.

But, it's not like these guys are slow; Matthews was considered the fastest guy on the team before Venric Mark arrived, Campbell has been noted as being fast, while Mabin is a proven solid commodity at CB. Peters is a senior leader who has a knack for making plays. All of these guys have the talent to play but they have just been a part of huge breakdowns in coverage fueled by miscommunication, as noted in recent press conferences. The coaching staff have taken a share of the blame for not putting these guys in a position to succeed, and I believe that given the continued failures of this unit.

This team has given up too many long ball completions, and if they can somehow get on the same page and correct that problem, they can get to a passing grade. They have the tools to do so, and although they won't turn into a stellar pass defense, they can give the 'Cats' a chance by playing proper coverage.


The defense is bad, mostly thanks to a failing pass defense that ranks near the bottom nationally; as a whole the defense is giving up almost 430 yards per game (101st nationally) and 30.0 points (88th). The only saving grace is the fact that they have generated some turnovers (11, good for 50th nationally) which have kept them in games. If they can somehow prevent the long passes and keep the run defense respectable while continuing to generate takeaways, the 'Cats can certainly attain bowl eligibility. Again, while they won't be a great defense, they can be a middle-of-the-road one and give NU a chance to win.

Place Kicking: C

On field goals, the sample size really isn't large enough to make sweeping conclusions as Jeff Budzien has gone 3-of-6 with a long of 47 yards. His misses have been an inexplicable short miss (26 yards) at Army, a long 45 yard try with wind against Eastern Illinois, and another long 47 yarder at Iowa that just missed wide right. He has shown good range but now must show consistency as NU needs as many points as it can handle with its defense. One notable item that won't show up in the stats is the fact that long snapper Pat Hickey hasn't had any bad snaps this year, which was something that caused problems early last year when he was handling snapping on place kicks.

Returns: A-

The stats don't always show it but the Northwestern return game is a big threat thanks to the dynamic Venric Mark. On punt returns, NU ranks 13th nationally (14.2 yards per return) and Mark has already jump started a couple of drives with nice returns. On kickoff returns, he is averaging 22.3 yards per return with a long of 63 yards and is a threat to take it to the house, forcing some teams to kick short (our out of bounds; which opponents have done 3 times this year).

Again, the stats aren't off-the-charts, but teams know that Mark is a big threat and therefore are forced to take their lumps and give NU better starting position in order to avoid kicking right at him. At some point this year, though, he'll likely make someone pay for trying to pin NU deep.

Punts, Kickoffs, and Coverage: B

On kickoffs, Steve Flaherty has done a good enough job, putting the ball around the 9 yard line on average, with 3 touchbacks and 2 kicks out of bounds. While those aren't amazing numbers, they have allowed the NU kick coverage to do a solid job (more on that later), and the ability to spread kicking duties around the team will likely pay dividends as the season progresses (unlike in 2009, where the beleaguered Stefan Demos handled all kicking and punting duties and wore down with injuries by the end of the year).

Punts are by far the worst component of special teams so far thanks to a fair number of shanks out of Brandon Williams. NU ranks 93rd in net punting (35.2 yards per punt); Williams is averaging 38.3 yards per punt, but does notably have 5 punts of 50+ yards and a long of 65. If he can get some consistency by avoiding shanks, this grade will certainly move upward.

The bright spot of special teams has been the coverage teams: NU ranks 6th nationally in punt return defense (just 3 returns allowed for a total of 3 yards) and ranks 12th in kick return defense (18.0 yards per return). There always seems to be a defender there to make the tackle and they rarely miss, showing a marked improvement over the early 2000s when fans had to wait in fear every time NU kicked the ball due to the threat of a big return. This team just doesn't allow opponents to get great field position on special teams, and that has certainly given the NU defense a fighting chance.


Special teams have been a bright spot, but then again they have failed at times (i.e. at Army where a very short field goal was missed and some punts were shanked). The unit is still relatively young and if they can develop consistency as they age, they will provide a nice foundation for the 'Cats over the next couple of seasons.


While I won't go as far as some fans who are ready to fire the entire coaching staff, they certainly deserve a low grade for the team's performance thus far. While the team has overachieved the previous 3 seasons or so, they are performing way below expectations this season and are on the cusp of losing the bowl eligibility streak despite a team full of returning starters and a relatively stocked offense that is performing very well against Big Ten competition. There has been questionable strategy at times and overall and underwhelming performance out of reportedly higher level recruits. While they continue to be competitive, the inability to close out games and the fact that they have allowed 80 points in the fourth quarter this season (13.3 points per game in the fourth quarter) show that something is lacking here. The only reason they rise above and F is the performance of the offense with Persa being out the first three games and what looks like a good 2 QB system moving forward.

Things look dim right now, but the fact that they have been competitive and still have talent on the roster means that things can turn around; it will help having four home games (including the last three in a row) plus a more manageable schedule that includes Indiana, Rice, and Minnesota (teams that have won a total of 3 games this season against FBS opponents).

First Half MVP: QB/WR Kain Colter

Colter is 2-1 as the starting QB and leads all regular offensive players with 81.8 all-purpose yards per game. He showed that he is a competent passer and is a great runner; the coaching staff have meanwhile adjusted with Persa back and have used him at QB and WR throughout the game, and he has excelled. He will be a nice offensive threat down the stretch and over the next couple of seasons.

Game of the First Half: Northwestern 35 @ Illinois 38

Although it wasn't the result that the 'Cats wanted, the game was certainly entertaining as Dan Persa came back and tossed a career high 4 TDs in the game and led the Wildcats to an impressive 28-10 lead in the third quarter. Unfortunately the pass defense caved in and Illinois came storming back, but NU would get one more shot by forcing a fumble late and driving in to take a lead with under two minutes in the game. NU would give up Illinois' final go-ahead score late to cap an entertaining contest that at least showed the Wildcat offense would indeed be formidable with Persa back at the helm.

Surprise of the First Half: Pass Defense

The defense wasn't expected to be good, but they certainly weren't expected to be this bad, especially with seniors (and all-conference candidates) Mabin and Peters leading the way. Instead, NU has generated very little in the way of a pass rush (despite having Browne up there) and have had massive and continuous breakdowns in the secondary. Even a middling secondary would have allowed the 'Cats to win a couple more games, which would have set NU up for a nice second half. Instead, everyone is grasping for answers, fans are calling for long-time coaches' heads (i.e. the dean of the NU coaching staff, Defensive Backs coach Jerry Brown), and team has its collective back against the wall.

Impact Underclassmen: WR Christian Jones

Jones has 8 catches for 142 yards and leads NU in yards per reception, and has worked his way into a starting position despite being a true freshman. He has good size and has shown the ability to catch the deep ball (a 39 yard pass against Michigan). He has also excelled in the blocking game, which is a bit surprising for a freshman. He will certainly be used down the stretch as the 'Cats rely on their passing 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.