Commentary: 2011 End of Season Report Card
by Jonathan Hodges

This end of season report card will finally put a wrap on the 2011 Northwestern football season and allow us to move onto a future that is filled with promise in the form of what should be one of the highest rated recruiting classes in recent NU history. In the meantime, though, time to give the disappointing 2011 season one more look and determine how well (or poor) each unit performed.

The Wildcats finished the year 6-7 for Northwestern's first losing record since Coach Fitzgerald's first year at the helm (NU went 4-8 in 2006), which was most certainly a disappointment considering NU came into the season with a bevy of seniors and one of the best quarterbacks in school history making a return for one final season (Dan Persa did indeed end up setting the career Division I pass completion rate record at 72.7%). While the defense was questionable, NU did have playmakers at all three levels (or so we were told). And the offensive line contained some highly ranked recruits who now had a ton of experience under their belts (including the duo of Al Netter and Ben Burkett, who ended up starting all 52 career games together). The schedule looked to be manageable, a bowl game was expected, and a bowl win would finally allow the Wildcats to eject the bowl win drought monkey from their collective back.

But, of course, none of that came to be thanks to a bad defense that just couldn't make plays (80th nationally in total defense, 106th in sacks). All year long there were issues in the secondary (demonstrated by NU's 116th ranking nationally in the Passing S&P+ advanced statistic that measures play-by-play success), and they were likely a large reason that NU left at least one win on the field this year (another Football Outsiders advanced stat: FEI, predicted NU to have 6.1 mean wins vs FBS teams; NU ended the year with 5 such wins). There were also questionable coaching decisions and times when the offense seemingly went into a shell (the Army game and the second half of the PSU game just to name a couple).

Thankfully, it's not all bad: Kain Colter emerged as a true mutliple threat athlete, NU made it to a fourth consecutive bowl game and (once again) fought hard in that game, came away with a huge win over a highly ranked team (this time at Nebraska), and played its best football late in the season (winning four of its final five regular season games). Much of the disappointment came along with the fact that NU failed to achieve fans' higher expectations for the team; in previous years just making a bowl would be the zenith, while now it's expected that the 'Cats actually win that postseason game but also compete for a Big Ten division crown.

Now is time to reflect on this season one last time, remembering both good times and bad, and hopefully learning as we head into a year with admittedly lower expectations (with many of those experienced seniors now departed) but with loads of potential (and the always blooming hope of a new year).

Quarterbacks: B
Midseason Grade: B+

Dan Persa came back with a vengeance against Illinois, tossing four TD passes, but came back to earth both then and in subsequent games as his Achilles' injury continually hampered his scrambling abilities and also led to other injuries that forced him to come out of multiple games (he would fail to finish five of the 10 games he started this season due to injury). While he did set the aforementioned career Div I pass completion rate record thanks to a solid performance this season (73.4% of passes completed) and had some nice looking stats (17 TDs to 7 INTs, 237.6 yards per game) all despite missing a good amount of time, he could not lead the 'Cats to victory when they needed him to the most (no thanks to his offensive line most of those times). NU went 4-6 in games that he started in 2011, and although the offense was proficient, it wasn't elite enough to overcome a bad defense. If Persa had a respectable defense to complement his offense, things may have turned out differently (see his 7-3 record as a starter in 2010), and if he wasn't continually dinged by injury he may have set even more passing records. While the QB grade this year suffers a bit, he'll definitely go down as one of the top quarterbacks in Northwestern history.

It's worth noting the backups Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian as they played into the season in significant ways, and things seem to be setting up for a QB contest heading into 2012. Colter played well in a limited role after Persa returned, even though he did suffer a dud of a game in his last start at Army: he completed over two thirds of his passes and ended with a six-to-one TD:INT ratio. And, of course, he was very adept in running the read option run game offense, leading the tam with 654 rushing yards and 9 TDs on the ground. It is worth noting that he likely won't be effective as a QB starter if he doesn't improve his passing, particularly ball speed and accuracy downfield, which the Army defense exploited well. That's where Siemian comes in: who was thrown into the fire to throw the ball in the fourth quarter while NU was down multiple times, and came out fairly well in that limited action (3 TDs, 1 INT, 61.5% completion rate, and 256 passing yards). He showed off a good arm and this will lead to an intriguing competition come spring.

Running Backs: C
Midseason Grade: B-

After Mike Trumpy went down in the Illinois game, NU's RB production tailed off throughout the year and became wholly reliant upon Colter to gain yards on the ground. Jacob Schmidt was a serviceable third down/short yardage back and ended with a respectable 4.4 yards per carry and 6 TDs, but was never able to become the feature back that NU has been missing since the graduation of Tyrell Sutton. Adonis Smith was nicked up at times and never really got to show off his speed; true freshman Treyvon Green got his chances (third on the team with 97 carries) but wasn't able to break out (just 3.7 yards per carry). And the Wildcats eventually resorted to putting Venric Mark at RB or getting the ball to him on sweeps or tosses to get some speed on the edges; he finished with 15 carries for 104 yards and a TD.

In the end, this group was hurt by injuries but also lacks elite playmakers with breakaway speed as well as guys with size. Not all the blame should fall on the shoulders of this group, though, as the under-performing offensive line certainly deserves its share of blame. It will be interesting to see what this group looks like next year; hopefully Trumpy will make it back to full health and will be able to contribute for multiple years in the future as the primary rushing weapon.

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

This group was more than competent as the 2011 season featured some great performances from the usual suspects (Jeremy Ebert racking up 1,060 yards and 11 TDs: Drake Dunsmore ranked second on the team with 522 yards and 6 TD grabs and also won the inaugural award for Big Ten TE of the year) but also saw the rise of Colter as a receiver (he finished third on the team in receptions, receiving yards, and TDs despite his limited time at the position). This group gets docked some for costly drops (see Rashad Lawrence's drop in the end zone just before halftime against Michigan) but overall played very well and gave the NU QBs multiple threats running around the field. And there is plenty of potential there for the future even with the departure of Ebert and Dunsmore: true freshman Christian Jones got valuable playing time, Demetrius Field will have opportunities as he goes into his senior year, the aforementioned Lawrence will have a chance for redemption, and Tony Jones, who sat out this season with an injury, will bring speed to the table next year. Plus, NU has shown a keen ability to develop WRs and looks to be just fine at that position.

Offensive Line: D
Midseason Grade: C

Many rightly expected much more of this offensive line, with its wealth of talent (highly recruited RT Patrick Ward) and experience (the aforementioned Netter and Burkett). Instead, they finished the year allowing 3.23 sacks per game, 114th nationally, and paving the way for just 4.6 yards per carry after removing sacks (RBs averaged just 4.2 yards per carry), which certainly didn't allow the run game to prosper. NU was essentially reliant upon the passing game, and NU's QBs spent much of their time trying to evade pressure, which was particularly evident in the last two games of the season as both MSU and Texas A&M blitz early and often, leaving the NU OL looking confused and unable to stop the rush. It's tough giving such a grade to guys who have clearly put in years of hard work: particularly the two seniors who started an NU-record number of games, but the grade must be based on what happens on the field, and that was indeed lacking for much of the year. Also, one can point to the stat of the year: NU was 6-0 when yielding two or fewer sacks and 0-7 when giving up three or more

Midseason Grade: B

Yes, both the OL and RBs got significant downgrades from midyear, but the offense as a whole performed rather well, putting up 28.9 points per game, ranking 34th nationally in total offense, and looking rather impressive in the advanced statistics: 24th in Offense S&P+ and 20th in Offense FEI. OC Mick McCall continued to find ways to keep the offense humming despite significant shortcomings and/or injuries, and they kept the 'Cats in almost every game until the end (despite the extremely porous defense). And if they had been able to pull out a couple more wins, they would have deserved a significant grade upgrade.

Of course there are some major high points worth noting: the long TD run and catches by Jeremy Ebert (think of the games against Army, Rice, and, most notably, Nebraska), and the impressive clock-bleeding drive at Nebraska in which NU ran the ball every time that ended with the game-sealing TD. This unit continues to put up highlights, and with young talent on board, next year should look like more of the same.

Defensive Line: D
Midseason Grade: C-

The offensive line isn't alone in the D category as Northwestern played horribly on both sides of the trenches this past season; the 'Cats ranked 106th nationally in sacks and 104th in tackles for loss, while allowing 4.9 yards per carry on the ground. DE Vince Browne came into the year looking to climb the NU record books in sacks but ended up with a disappointing 3.0 sack performance (although that was actually tied for the team lead, unfortunately) as he virtually disappeared in Big Ten play and was relegated to pass down only duty for much of the season. The defensive tackles played well enough given some injuries (Jack DiNardo was dinged up early on, Brian Arnfelt had a lingering injury that cost him a good chunk of the year, and Niko Mafuli, who played rather well in this, his senior season, unfortunately missed the bowl game) and lots of youth in the rotation (Will Hampton and Chance Carter played a good bit). Unfortunately, they were unable to generate consistent pressure up the middle, particularly when they didn't have all three guys with experience available. Finally, Tyler Scott showed some promise at the other DE position, but he too was hampered with injury and hasn't shown himself to be an effective pass rusher.

While much of the blame for the poor pass defense rightly falls upon the shoulders of the secondary, the DL deserves a good bit of blame as they were unable to generate much of a pass rush at all and virtually disappeared at times, giving opposing QBs all day to throw. One only needs to look at how the defense looked when the line did manage to get pressure to see how things could be if they did that consistently (one example: the first half against Illinois when the Illini were held to 10 points). It will be interesting to see how DC Mike Hankwitz and the staff approach this going forward; in the late Randy Walker's final season there were rumblings about a switch to a 3-4 defense that never materialized after Fitz took over. But, it's clear now that the LB position will be much deeper and more athletic than the DL positions, and it will be interesting to see if the staff gives that look a try (particularly given how effective Texas A&M's pass rush was out of the 3-4 versus NU).

Linebackers: C
Midseason Grade: C+

The linebacking corps also could not avoid the injury bug this year and Coach Fitz was also forced to play around with the starting rotation from time to time to get this group fired up; while they did an OK job, nobody stood out as a defensive leader and none of them made a significant impact in pass defense (they also combined for just 4.5 sacks despite coming on blitzes a respectable amount of time). Bryce McNaul was a solid tackler and his experience will be missed; the unit suffered a setback when he was out due to injury. While some of the younger guys (Damien Proby, Collin Ellis, Chi Chi Ariguzo) showed promise, they were not good enough to lock down a position for the entire year.

Although McNaul and Ben Johnson will graduate and move on, there is still a lot of potential with this squad along with some top tier recruits coming in to light a fire under these guys. NU has missed having a dominant linebacker the past few seasons despite having an all-time great in Fitz as the head coach; hopefully they can turn one of these players into such a player which would certainly give the overall defense a shot in the arm. They need guys they can send on blitzes and actually get to the QB along with disciplined play and solid tackling: all areas that have been lacking or inconsistent this year and in recent seasons.

Secondary: D
Midseason Grade: F

The secondary actually improved over the latter half of the season, as there were far fewer receivers streaking wide open (by about 10 yards) and catching back-breaking TDs. No, they weren't great, but there was improvement. Also, Northwestern held a rather formidable Texas A&M offense in check during the bowl game despite the absence of top CB Jordan Mabin: allowing just three TDs on the day (A&M's talented receivers did a number on NU but it could have been far worse). In the end, redshirt freshman S Ibraheim Campbell ended up leading the team in tackles with 100 stops on the year, despite having major issues early in the season (he also was named to multiple freshman all-American teams). Mabin was solid all year long and was clearly missed when his career ended in the first half of the MSU game. Brian Peters got some all-conference honors due to his solid all-around play that included a team-leading five INTs (he was second on the team with 92 tackles as well).

Unfortunately, that's about it for the positives as this team was just plain bad against the pass: the aforementioned 116th ranking in Passing S&P+, 91st in pass efficiency defense, and 114th in 3rd down defense (50.0% conversion rate allowed). No, they weren't helped with any sort of pressure up front, but wide open receivers also became the norm as this squad rarely stopped anyone. And things are definitely not looking up for next season with the two best members of the secondary by far (Peters and Mabin) heading out due to graduation.

Midseason Grade: D

The defense did just enough to win some games down the stretch (containing the Nebraska run game and doing a good job of holding down two bad teams in Rice and Minnesota), but overall had a pretty bad year. The defense finished 91st in Defense S&P+ and 85th in Defense FEI, and that while not exactly facing a murderer's row of offenses (according to FEI, NU's defensive strength of schedule ranked 84th nationally). All this despite bringing back key contributors across the defense, including a hyped pass rusher, senior linebacker, and two honorable mention all-conference players in the secondary. While the downfall of the defense after the loss of Persa in 2010 could be attributed to the psychological side of things, this year's issues were certainly more than that: issues with talent level, development, and strategy were all apparent.

Now, one hopes that Hankwitz and Fitz determine some way to make significant upgrades and/or improvements going into next season. Fortunately, there should be a high level of competition with virtually no position secured going into the spring and some top flight recruits coming in during the summer to shake things up.

Place Kicking: C+
Midseason Grade: C

Jeff Budzien handled all field goal kicking duties this season and saw a slight improvement over the final half of the season, although the fact was that he was rarely used (just 10 FG attempts all year; he made six of those). He does get credit, though, for hitting all 50 of his XP tries this year (he remains perfect for his collegiate career). It will be interesting to see if he can boost his confidence in the offseason and be more effective in the coming season.

Returns: B
Midseason Grade: A-

The return game gets a significant downgrade as Venric Mark was far less effective this season than he was last year as a true freshman. Yes, NU was technically second nationally in punt returns (15.9 yards per return), but Mark only had eight returns all year. On kickoffs, Northwestern's rank fell down to 67th nationally; an improvement over the pre-Mark days, but nothing stellar. If nothing else, this ranking gets a boost from the ever-present threat of the big return, which Mark still brings. If this was due to him being integrated into the offense more, hopefully that can be ironed out over this offseason with plenty of preparation time.

Punts, Kickoffs, and Coverage: B-
Midseason Grade: B

This grade took a bit of a hit mostly thanks to one play: punting right to MSU's Keshawn Martin before halftime and allowing the only special teams return TD of the season. Other than that, the coverage teams did a respectable job: Northwestern ranked 20th nationally on kickoff return defense, and outside of that return for TD, allowed just nine punt returns all year for an average of 6.3 yards per return. Brendan Williams averaged a decent 40.8 yards per punt (57th nationally), had 10 50+ yard punts, and 14 of his 52 punts were downed inside the 20. Finally, on kickoffs, Steve Flaherty got the ball to the 8.8 yard line, on average, and had six touchbacks.

Midseason Grade: B-

Although there was one very costly mistake, the special teams were overall fairly solid: NU hit every extra point attempt, played very well in coverage, kicked and punted the ball average or better, and had at least the threat of a return game. Hopefully the field goal kicking will come along and we'll get a larger sample size to fully evaluate Budzien. Although special teams didn't exactly win any games for the 'Cats, they didn't really lose any, either.

Midseason Grade: D

After a miserable five game losing streak, Northwestern's longest since Fitz's first year as head coach, the staff did enough to propel NU to six wins and a bowl game for a fourth consecutive season. Yes, it's not contending for a division title, but it is worth noting and keeping the staff out of failing territory. The Wildcats were playing their best football by the end of the season and there was progress in multiple areas.

Unfortunately, this team was a big disappointment, underachieving by at least one win and once again failing to get that bowl win monkey off of their backs. Also, the defense remains to be a glaring issue despite the defensive pedigree of head coach Pat Fitzgerald. Now they must rebuild to some extent on both sides of the ball just as the Legends Division of the Big Ten becomes tougher with MSU winning the inaugural division crown and Michigan emerges from its own mini-Dark Age.

It was disappointing to some extent seeing no changes in the coaching staff despite sustained issues in the secondary and on the offensive line, but Fitz and Northwestern are fiercely loyal and hopefully the staff will make enough adjustments to improve next season with a younger set of players. The one thing they do have going is the incoming recruiting class, which looks to be the best (by far) under Fitz and potentially one of the best ever for NU.

Season MVP: WR Jeremy Ebert
First Half MVP: QB/WR Kain Colter

Colter certainly emerged as a triple threat (running, passing, receiving), but looking at the entire season, Ebert meant far more to this team, continually grabbing the ball and making plays whether it be on long TD catch-and-runs or by picking up vital third and fourth downs. He ended the year rightly grabbing some all-conference honors and will be near the top of multiple Northwestern all-time lists. Like many top WRs in Northwestern's recent past, he is not a prototypical WR in terms of size, but more than made up for that with speed, athleticism, and overall football abilities. While there were certainly other valuable players this year for NU, Ebert was constantly there making plays no matter who was tossing him the ball (he also threw a nice two-point conversion himself in the bowl game).

Game of the Year: Northwestern 28 @ Nebraska 25
Game of the First Half: Northwestern 35 @ Illinois 38

This one is easy; Northwestern's upset in Lincoln was the game of the year and factored into the Legends Division race, giving MSU the control of their destiny and knocking Nebraska down a rung. It was also sweet revenge for those NU fans who suffered through the 2000 Alamo Bowl, particularly since it came in Memorial Stadium. The game also re-energized Northwestern's bowl hopes after virtually being left for dead during the earlier five game losing streak. There was Jeremy Ebert's 81 yard catch and run for TD as he sped past Nebraska's vaunted secondary and the 13-play, 7:14 drive in the fourth quarter that featured all running plays to wind the clock and take a definitive lead. And all of that came after Persa went out early in the game with a shoulder injury. One great performance in an otherwise overcast season.

Impact Underclassman: S Ibraheim Campbell
Impact Underclassman of the First Half: WR Christian Jones

Christian Jones garnered a good bit of playing time at WR but ended up being overshadowed by the two-headed monster of Ebert and Dunsmore - particularly after Persa returned. This allowed another underclassman to step up, and that was on the other side of the ball. Campbell took many lumps early in the season, specifically in pass coverage, but as the year progressed he gained confidence and also did a good job of tackling throughout the season. He ended the year leading the team in tackles, and had two INTs and another four pass break-ups to boot. He's definitely the future of the secondary and hopefully the staff will find some pieces to fit around him.

Surprise of the Year: QB/WR Kain Colter
Surprise of the First Half: Pass Defense

Going into the season nobody expected the defense to be very good, but initially it was surprising how bad they were (particularly against the pass). In the end, things averaged out to some extent as they improved over the course of the year. The biggest surprise by the end of the year, though, was the versatile threat of Colter as he ended the year with 654 rushing yards and 9 TDs on the ground (both to lead NU), 673 passing yards (second on the team), and 466 receiving yards (third). He's the first player to post such numbers in those three categories since at least the mid-1990's. He showed potential in last season's bowl game, but really came on strong, particularly with some respectable passing and a great job receiving despite little experience in that position. It will be very intriguing to see how he is used going forward as he vocally desires to be the starting QB but will face some good competition there.

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.