Commentary: 2008 Season Review
by Jonathan Hodges


Northwestern's 2008 campaign (9-4, 5-3 - 4th in Big Ten) is definitely considered a success, as the 'Cats exceeded even the highest expectations, reaching the 9-win plateau (for only the 5th time in school history) and breaking a bunch of other long-standing streaks along the way.  The 'Cats topped my 8-win prediction (albeit, giving myself a +/- 1 win margin, came within my predicted range) and equaled my pre-season "crazy" prediction of the year by going undefeated (4-0) in nonconference play for the first time since 1963.  The Wildcats rattled off the most wins to start a season (5) since 1962.  And NU had its longest winning streak (again, 5) since the 1996 Big Ten co-Championship season.  The Wildcats went 4-1 on the road (with its only loss being the stunner at Indiana).  NU never lost consecutive games and featured a much-improved defense - shaving over 11 points from its scoring average from a season ago to yield just over 20 points/game in 2008, leading the Big Ten in sacks during the regular season, and yielding a school-record low rushing yards/game for the season.  The 'Cats ended the regular season ranked in the top 25 in all polls and the BCS rankings.  And, they reached the 7th bowl in Northwestern history, and although they lost, it was a valiant fight as NU forced the game into overtime after holding the high octane Missouri offense to just one offensive TD in regulation as they grabbed 3 INTs off of the one-time Heisman candidate Daniel.

Yes, the season did have its share of disappointments - NU failed at a shot to start the season 6-0 as they coughed up 3 early turnovers to MSU and spotted the Spartans 17 points before putting up a fight; the 'Cats lost a stunner at Indiana after losing their starting RB (Sutton) and QB (Bacher) to injuries; Northwestern got thumped by OSU, again; and the Wildcats were "just a play away" from upsetting Missouri in the Alamo Bowl - but came up short, losing in OT.  But, the fact is that the 9-win bowl season has laid a foundation for Fitz's head coaching tenure at Northwestern that looks to propel NU to a positive future: routinely go to bowl games and work to win those bowl games.  And after a decade of watching opponents shred the 'Cats for piles of points, the strong defense led by Fitz himself looks to be back as the D returns a slew of players going into 2009 and is led by DC Hankwitz (see the season statistical review of the D posted earlier, highlighting the statistical improvement in EVERY defensive category of significance).

While the 2008 season didn't feature any "marquee" wins that will go down in history, it did feature a lot of hard-fought victories that added up down the stretch and made NU the team that it was this past season.  The opening 30-10 win over Syracuse laid a foundation for the improved defense of 2008 as the D scored 9 points (INT return for TD and safety) and yielded only 10 (7 of which came off of a very short field as NU lost a fumble inside its own 20).  The 24-20 win at hot and humid post-tropical storm Duke showed that this year's squad could persevere in the end - overcoming a 4th quarter deficit and then holding back the opposition down to the last gasp (made even bigger considering the 2007 disappointment).  A pedestrian 33-7 win over I-AA/FCS Southern Illinois amidst the biggest rainstorm in Chicago history affirmed that the 'Cats could take care of business against lesser opposition - never before a sure thing.  And the 16-8 win over Ohio allowed this NU squad to go unbeaten in regular season nonconference play for the first time since 1963 - a win thanks to the defense as the 'Cats turned the ball over 5 times.

The Big Ten season began with what would become the biggest win of the season, a 22-17 Cardiac 'Cats classic against Iowa on the road, as NU grabbed 5 turnovers, knocked Doak Walker award-winning RB Shonn Greene out of the game (as NU forced its final turnover that would lead to the go-ahead TD drive), and left town with a 2-game winning streak over Iowa in their house.  Next up was a big hype game that NU unfortunately fumbled away - giving up 3 turnovers as MSU won 37-20 after NU spotted them 17 points in the first quarter.  The homecoming game saw NU rebound in a big way, a 48-26 win over Purdue as the offense came out of its shell and NU capitalized on turnovers.  After that, though, came a bit of a letdown as NU dropped its most disappointing game of the season to Indiana, 19-21, and the 'Cats lost both Sutton and Bacher to injury - and things began to look very bleak for the remainder of the year.

But then came the tide-turning Minnesota game, NU's last in the Metrodome, a 24-17 stunning win over the then 7-1 and ranked Gophers, featuring backup QB Kafka running for a Big Ten QB record 217 yards and Brendan Smith sealing the game with an INT return for TD (his second of the year) in the waning seconds.  NU returned to home for a 10-45 beating by OSU (albiet OSU's smallest margin of victory since NU's last win in 2004), a game where NU had to resort to its backup QB and 3rd string RB (with backup RB Conteh going down during practice).  The Wildcats then headed to the Big House to defeat Michigan there 21-14 for only the second time since 1959 as the D completely enveloped the passing game and Bacher tossed 2 TDs in NU's first 2 second half drives to put NU up for good - in what were the worst conditions I've ever sustained to watch a football game (temperature below freezing + rain + snow).  The final home game was a bout against in-state rival Illinois, where NU won by a sound margin of 27-10, taking home the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk for the last time (as it was retired following the season) and securing that 9th win.  Finally, the 'Cats dropped a closely fought Alamo Bowl to Missouri 23-30 in overtime, despite being large underdogs and largely dismissed in the lead up to the game.

Now I'll go through the games and players of the year, then break down each unit with final grades.  Note that I reprinted my games and players of the first half from my mid-season report card article from the middle of the season.  Note that the statisitcs are final (after the completion of all bowls).

Game of the First Half: Northwestern 22 - Iowa 17

Game of the Second Half: Northwestern 24 - Minnesota 17: NU went on the road again after a very disappointing loss to Indiana, where the 'Cats lost both starting RB Sutton and QB Bacher, to face then 7-1 and ranked Minnesota.  Backup QB Kafka came out running as he racked up a Big Ten QB record 217 yards on the ground and tossed 2 TD passes as the 'Cats came out strong and surprisingly entered halftime tied 17 all.  In the second half the D stepped up big time, allowing no points down the stretch and coming up with the play of the year as a pass ricocheted off of Minnesota's WR Decker, NU's DB Oredugba, and into the hands of S Brendan Smith at around midfield who then found his blockers and returned it for a TD with 0:12 remaining to seal the victory for Northwestern.  The game would define the season for both teams as NU went on to win 3/4 games in November while Minnesota failed to win another game (finishing 7-6, including their bowl result).

2008 Game of the Year: Northwestern 22 - Iowa 17: Despite the terrific win over Minnesota, Iowa was the best opponent that NU defeated during the season, and that game was no less exciting in many ways.  The 'Cats found themselves in a 17-3 hole just before halftime before CJ led a TD drive just before the half.  Then the D chimed in and held Iowa scoreless in the second half as NU stormed back to take the lead late and then hold on after Iowa found themselves with a first and goal and a chance to win with the clock winding down.  The win was even more satisfying once bowl positioning season came around - because even though NU was passed over for Iowa, NU could still point to a better record at the end of the regular season (9-3 versus 8-4) and a head-to-head road win as reasons for being the more deserving team on the field.  The 'Cats have now won 3 of the last 4 in this series, including 2 straight in Iowa City.

Disappointment Game(s) of the Year:

- Northwestern 19 - Indiana 21: Northwestern seems to always have that "gimme" game that they lose, and 2008 is no exception, even after finally getting over the nonconference opponent mountain.  Indiana, a 2007 bowl team, regressed in 2008, and seemingly collapsed after a 2-0 start (against 2 I-AA/FCS opponents), but NU couldn't pull out a win in Bloomington.  5 turnovers with no takeaways didn't help matters, and neither did losing both starting RB & QB to injuries (after losing their starting MLB to injury in the previous game) - yet the 'Cats found themselves close to pulling out the win at the end of the day, but came up just short.  Looking back at the end of the year, it hurts even more, as a win would have propelled NU to 10 on the year and likely would have sent the 'Cats to a New Year's Day bowl.

- Northwestern 23 - Missouri 30 (Alamo Bowl)
:  This one is disappointing in a different way.  This game was supposed to be out of reach for the 'Cats as Missouri's high octane offense was expected to shred NU to the tune of a big victory (Missouri was favored by 12.5, one of the highest point spreads in the 2008 bowl games).  Instead, NU led for much of the game and sent the game into overtime before yielding, putting up a valiant effort that included the defense grabbing 3 INTs and holding the Tigers to one regulation offensive TD and CJ Bacher having a great statistical game, tossing over 300 yards and 3 TDs.  All of that was enough to make NU fans proud, but left a bitter tasted in their mouths as the 'Cats were just one play short - a missed XP and a missed FG, a dropped first down conversion late in the game, and a missed tackle or two - of earning the first NU bowl victory since 1949.

First Half MVP: Defensive Line

Second Half MVP: DE Corey Wootton

2008 MVP:
DE Corey Wootton (42 tackles, 16.0 TFLs, 10.0 sacks, 1 INT, 2 PBUs, 7 QB hurries, 1 fumble recovery, 1 forced fumble, 1 blocked kick)  The fact is that Wootton epitomized the turnaround of the defense in 2008.  Everyone knew he had the talent but up until this season, he mostly underwhelmed - under DC Colby, fans watched as the defense, despite plenty of next-level talent, failed to get sufficient pressure on opposing offenses and was routinely thrashed.  That changed in a big way in 2008, as NU got lots of pressure up front, led by Wootton (the only All-Conference selection on NU in 2008, a team that finished 4th in the conference).  NU led the Big Ten in sacks and the performance of the DL helped the defense as a whole and propelled the 'Cats to multiple wins thanks to the D's effort.  It all starts up front, and the performance of the DL received a huge boost from Wootton's great season.

Admirable Performances:
- RB Tyrell Sutton (184 rushes for 890 yards, 4.8 yards/carry, 6 TDs; 35 receptions for 305 yards, 8.7 yards/reception, 2 TDs)  Despite suffering a wrist injury that kept him out for the entire month of November (4 games), Sutton fought his way for 890 yards on the year, to finish his career 2nd all-time on Northwestern's rushing list.  While it's disappointing to think about what could have been if not for a questionable offensive strategy (2006), a nagging ankle injury (6+ games missed in 2007), and the wrist injury (4 games missed in 2008) - the fact is that Tyrell had a very successful career for the Wildcats and will go on to compete for a spot on an NFL team in the near future.  He proved that he is a warrior, fighting back from 2 mid-season injuries to finish off the past 2 seasons on the field; and from anyone who has seen his running style first hand, it's obvious that he fights for every yard and is a great competitor.  This season, he showed how valuable he really was through his running as well as his receiving, proving that he may be one of the best receivers out of the backfield in college today.

- QB CJ Bacher (245 for 408 passing (60.0%) for 2,432 yards, 17 TDs, 15 INTs, 116.5 pass efficiency; 84 rushes for 230 yards, 2.7 yards/carry, 3 TDs; 1 reception for 25 yards)
  CJ Bacher also fought back from a late-season injury (hamstring) this season on his way to another impressive season, even if he didn't throw for over 300 yards/game.  He made the offense go and routinely found the open receiver - whether it was Lane, Peterman, Ward, or an underclassman - and he gave his young and relatively inexperienced OL a huge benefit by getting rid of the ball quickly throughout the season.  What is impressive is that he was 16-12 as NU's starting QB and led the team to 2 6+ win seasons and put up some impressive and record-breaking numbers along the way.  As a starter, he was 12-1 when throwing less than 2 INTs in a game, with the only loss being the Alamo Bowl where he only threw 1, yet NU lost in OT.  The interception was a bugaboo for CJ, though, as he went 4-11 when throwing 2 or more in a game; for his career he had 43 TDs and 43 INTs.  Overall, though, CJ was a stand up guy both on and off the field for NU and, despite criticism, never gave up and fought to improve throughout his career - even flat out-performing former Heisman candidate Chase Daniel during the Alamo Bowl in what was the final game of his collegiate career.

- WRs Ross Lane (60 receptions for 640 yards, 10.7 yards/reception, 3 TDs), Eric Peterman (59 receptions for 737 yards, 12.5 yards/reception, 6 TDs; 5 carries for 4 yards; 2 for 2 passing for 55 yards, 1 TD) and Rasheed Ward (51 receptions for 526 yards, 10.3 yards/reception, 3 TDs)
.  The trio of senior WRs really came together to give CJ lots of throwing options, and, as the stats show, CJ did indeed spread the love between the 3 seniors.  While none of them were really prototypical WRs in the NFL sense, they excelled at receiving in the spread offense and each of them had fantastic moments - and coincidentally, all 3 had TD receptions in the Alamo Bowl.  None of them were extremely heralded coming in, but they will surely be missed as receivers who can make the catch and make things happen.

- S Brad Phillips (109 takles (56 solo), 6.0 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, 3 INTs, 6 PBUs, 1 QB hurry, 2 forced fumbles).
  Phillips had one of the biggest season-to-season improvements I've seen, as he went from a backup safety thrust into a big role last season (with Smith's shoulder injury) to a confident and hard-hitting starter this year.  Last season he routinely looked lost, made mistakes, and took some hits (like Juice Williams running him over at the goal line).  But this year he turned things around and almost always found the right spot (3 opportunistic INTs), played confidently, and laid some monster hits (like the one on Doak Walker award winner Shonn Greene that forced a fumble and the RB to leave the game).  He led the D in tackles and ended up playing a hybrid S/LB role that allowed him to hang around the line of scrimmage if necessary and make those tackles.  His improvement was a boon to the D as a whole.

- LB Nate Williams (66 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 1.0 sacks, 2 PBUs).
  Williams was impressive because as a sophomore he was thrust into a starting role midway through the year.  And he made the most of those starts, racking up the tackles during the last half of the year and showing that he has the abilities to start at the MLB spot in the Big Ten.  One has to look back just 2 years to see how NU fared after losing its defensive leader in the middle (when Roach was lost to injury mid-season, on the way to a 4-8 record for the 'Cats), yet Williams stepped in and kept the D on track.  He will be a foundation of the defense for the next couple years.

- LB Prince Kwateng (106 tackles (54 solo), 5.0 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, 2 PBUs, 2 QB hurries, 1 fumble recovery, 1 forced fumble)
.  The senior captain showed why he was elected captain by his peers by placing 2nd on the team in tackles and leading the way as the most experienced LB for much of the season.  Mostly overlooked the past couple seasons, he made some impressive tackles this year and showed good speed getting to the sideline.  And, of course, as a part of the successful 2008 defense, he deserves a nod.

- CBs Sherrick McManis (67 tackles, 2 INTs, 12 PBUs, 1 forced fumble) and Jordan Mabin (52 tackles, 2.0 TFLs, 3 INTs, 5 PBUs, 1 fumble recovery, 2 forced fumbles).
  For the first time in a while, Northwestern had 2 reliable cornerbacks that could contain opponents' receiving threats and make plays when necessary.  McManis' 12 PBUs were quite impressive as he swatted away many balls, and Mabin's team-leading (tie) 3 INTs contributed to the 'Cats' defensive success.  What's even better is that both of these guys could make tackles - even on running plays they could shed blocks and get to the ball carrier to prevent the big gain.  And they will both return in 2009 to anchor what should be a great secondary (when's the last time an NU fan could say that?).

- S Brendan Smith (82 tackles, 3.0 TFLs, 2 INTs returned for 74 yards and 2 TDs, 6 PBUs, 1 QB hurry, 15 punt returns for 118 yards).
  The only non-senior captain really stepped up this season and had what was probably the most impressive play of the season: the game-winning INT return for TD against Minnesota with just 0:12 left on the clock.  He made tackles, covered receivers, returned punts, and provided valuable leadership for the defense, helping them find the success they did during the year.

- K Amado Villarreal (20 for 25 on FGs, 80.0%; 30 for 34 XPs, 88.2%).
  Amado had a very successful year to cap an impressive 2-year career as the starting place kicker at NU; in fact, his 80.0% FG success rate is the highest single-season total in NU history, and his 20 made FGs ties the single season record.  He also led NU in scoring with 90 points on the year.  Credit him for helping NU get points on the board to win close games.

First Half Surprise of the Year: Offensive Line

Second Half Surprise of the Year: Defense

2008 Surprise of the Year: Defense.  I've already written an entire breakdown on the statistical improvement of the defense from 2007 to 2008 (there were relatively little personnel changes on the feld), and while many expected to see an improvement in the D in 2008 (there was nowhere to go but up, really), the place that they finished up was quite impressive.  A lot of credit must be given to DC Hankwitz, DL coach Long, and HC Fitz's committment to building a strong defense - and, of course, the players on the field executing the plays.  NU generated a ton of pressure up front and garnered a Big Ten leading number of sacks, plenty of TFLs, the best season performance against the run in NU history (in terms of rushing yards/game), and, of course, gave up only 20.2 points/game - an 11 point improvement from one season earlier.  We saw the coming of age of the DL (everyone knew the talent was there but the performance never was), vast improvements in the secondary (Smith, Phillips, McManis), and youth proving themselves (Mabin, Williams).  And we saw a unit that continued to succeed even after losing significant players to injury (CB Vaughn lost in game 2, MLB Arrington lost in game 7, DE Browne lost in game 9, and DT Bryant lost in game 11).  The D really epitomized what Fitz is trying to bring to NU football - a unit that works as a team and plays and succeeds with what they are given.

First Half Disappointment: Offense

Second Half Disappointment: Injuries

In the first half, the lack of offensive production really stuck out as a disappointment, especially given the talent at the skill positions and track record of putting up a ton of yards and points.  But in the second half, something else came out, and that was injuries.  No, it's not something that you can control, as it's a fact of a physical game like football, but it's disappointing nonetheless.  NU saw many significant players go down with injuries throughout the season: CB Vaughn in game 2, MLB Arrington in game 7, QB Bacher and RB Sutton in game 8, DE Browne in game 9, RB Conteh before game 10, DT Bryant in game 11, and DE Wootton in game 13 (and those are just the primary starters).  The fact is that NU has seen seasons go down the tubes thanks to injuries in the past decade and this season very well could have suffered the same fate.

BUT, HC Fitz and the team pulled together and responded to this adversity; instead of folding, they finished the year strong on the way to only the 5th 9-win season in school history.  The offense found guys who could carry the team without its 2 biggest offensive weapons (QB Kafka running for 217 yards at Minnesota despite missing both Bacher and Sutton), and the defense plugged in young guys who got the job done (Mabin, Williams).  Credit Fitz for stocking enough talent on the team to make up for injuries that may come about and also for preparing this team to overcome such obstacles.  The job that he did in 2008 shouldn't be overlooked - especially given the injuries sustained by NU.

Final Unit Grades


Grade: C
Stats (national rank, conference rank): 24.4 points/game (74th, 8th), 358.5 yds/game (61st, 6th), 141.8 rushing yds/game (64th, 8th), 216.7 passing yds/game (59th, 5th), 119.1 pass efficiency (77th, 7th), 46.4% 3rd down conversion (21st, 2nd), 1.7 sacks allowed/game (45th, 2nd), and 28 turnovers lost (93rd, 9th) (interceptions: 18,  fumbles: 10).
Overall:  As a whole, the offense didn't live up to expectations in 2008 as they featured experienced and proven seniors in every skill position, yet only put up 24 points/game.  Yes, NU was breaking in a new coordinator and had a very young OL, but this squad never got things flowing outside of one game (Purdue) where they used turnovers to build momentum.  Yes, maybe NU fans have set their expectations too high after all-time performances from the offense in 2000 and 2005, but this year's offense never really showed a sustained flash of what we've seen from them as recent as last year.  The running game flat out crumbled, especially after Sutton went down with an injury; NU averaged 3.8 yards/carry on the year - without Sutton that number was 3.1 yards/carry.  The zone blocking employed by the OL was rarely effective, and despite a strong start - the line eventually allowed almost 2 sacks/game (giving up 5 against Mizzou in the Alamo Bowl).  The passing game was plagued by drops early in the year, but eventually came around as the triumverate of Lane, Peterman, and Ward presented excellent receiving options for CJ.  The key issue was probably turnovers - NU had 10 fumbles and 18 INTs - which ended up hurting the 'Cats as they ended with a negative turnover margin.  All in all, though, it's hard to rank this unit above an "average" C grade, and even that's being a bit generous as they were in the lower 50th percentile nationally in virtually every statistical category.

Quarterback: B-  CJ did a good enough job, throwing 17 TDs to 15 INTs in 2008 and leading a respectable offense, but he never reached the potential we saw in his back to back performances against MSU and Minnesota in 2007.  He must be given some credit for overcoming the OL's shortcomings and getting the ball out of his hands quickly and using his mobility to evade some pressure and gain some yards.  Also, credit Kafka for his 2 starts and his impressive running ability, which will likely be shown off next season as well.

Running Backs and "Superbacks": B  Sutton did a nice job, as always, both as a runner and receiver out of the backfield.  Outside of him, though, there were few things to be impressed with.  Conteh got precious little time on the field, but even when he was there he underwhelmed with only 3.2 yards/carry - and never came close to the good job he did backing up Sutton in 2007.  Simmons was then thrust into the starting role but was seemingly overwhelmed by the role, averaging just 2.7 yards/carry.  Not everything can be blamed on the RBs for the running game's performance, but the fact is the 2 backups don't have Sutton's ability to shed tackles and get the extra yardage.  The "superbacks" (mostly in the form of TEs Rooks and Mitchell) were utilized more often this season, but played little into the game plan outside of blocking - which will be evaluated more thoroughly as a part of the OL assessment.

Wide Receivers: B  The receivers generally did a good job in NU's spread offense, but some credit was deducted for their early season "dropsies" that were especially apparent in NU's close win at Duke.  The senior trio of Lane, Peterman, and Ward were impressive as usual, and true freshman Ebert was a pleasant surprise in the slot.  Brewer disappointed as he sustained an injury early in the year and never really showed off the speed and skills that were touted over the past couple of years - he finished the year with 18 catches for 145 yards and a long reception of just 19 yards.  It will be interesting to see which receivers step up next season with the 3 top guys moving on.

Offensive Line: C-  The young and relatively inexperienced OL featuring 3 redshirt freshman, a converted DL playing on offense for the first time in college, and another spot taken by guys who have a little, but not much, experience started off pretty well but faded down the stretch.  Their pass protection was masked by CJ's ability to get rid of the ball quickly - which became apparent later in the year (starting against Indiana) as NU's QBs were tracked down in the backfield more often.  Their ability to open things up in the running game crumbled as well, and after losing Sutton, who could make things happen on his own many times, they looked less impressive.  Particularly frustrating was the constant use of the zone run blocking scheme, which became less and less effective as the year went on and often ended with the ball carrier being stopped for no gain or a yard as they were taken down while the OL left a defender near the play completely unblocked.  The positive thing is that 4 starters return next season along with some others who now garner significant experience; now that the trial by fire is over hopefully improvement can begin.


Grade: A-
Stats (national rank, conference rank): 20.2 points/game (26th, 4th), 340.5 yards/game (49th, 5th), 126.4 rushing yards/game (34th, 4th), 214.2 passing yards/game (71st, 8th), 111.8 pass efficiency defense (25th, 5th),  34.7% 3rd down conversion defense (28th, 3rd), 2.6 sacks/game (18th, 2nd), 6.6 TFL/game (29th, 3rd), and 25 turnovers gained (42nd, 4th) (interceptions: 13;  fumbles recovered: 12).
Overall:  The fact is that the 2008 Wildcats won thanks to the defnese, who allowed the equivalent of under 3 TDs/game, while creating a lot of pressure up front (top 20 nationally in sacks, top 30 in TFLs).  The statistical improvement has been well documented and overall the attitude underwent a massive turnaround.  It all started when Fitz took over as HC and, as a defensive-minded guy, made an effort to bring in defensive talent and shift NU from an offensive-focused team to a defensive-focused one (and that effort isn't done yet).  Then it got a huge boost when Hankwitz was hired as DC - a guy with over 2 decades of DC experience at this level and someone who implanted a new aggressive attitude and schemes that directly benefitted the personnel that NU has.  This unit impressed during the regular season and continued the trend against Mizzou in the Alamo Bowl where they held the Tigers to just one offensive TD in regulation and forced 3 INTs - this to one of the nation's most prolific offenses.  What is especially great for 'Cats fans is that this unit returns all but 3 starters and has a slew of talented underclassmen ready to compete for playing time.  They deserve high marks but get notched down by giving up a lot of points to OSU and MSU during the regular season.

Defensive Line: A  It's hard to give these guys anything but an A given their Big Ten leading sack total and the massive amount of pressure they put on opposing offenses' backfields.  Mims and Wootton on the ends wreaked havoc while Bryant, Hahn, and Gill held down the middle in a fashion almost never seen at NU (this year's squad posted the lowest rushing yards/game total allowed in NU history, including a performance against Ohio where they allowed 4 net rushing yards).  Yes, they had trouble getting to Daniel in the Alamo Bowl and OSU's Pryor, but those were some of the most prolific players in the country, and they deserve high marks for leading the entire defense's turnaround.  It all starts up front, and their effort really made NU's season.

Linebackers: A-  For a starting lineup that ended up featuring 2 sophomores (Williams and Davie), they did an impressive job - both stopping the run and helping in the passing game.  Kwateng came on strong and showed his senior leadership, and the contribution of Arrington, who held down the middle for half of the season until his knee injury, can't be overlooked.  Of course there is the aforementioned Williams who did a quality fill-in job and looks to be the guy in the middle for the next couple of seasons.  Finally, Davie provided a pass rush off the edge and will give NU some nice options moving forward.

Secondary: A  For the first time in over a decade, this unit can be considered a strong point of the team, and moving into 2009 they will return everyone.  I've already singled out McManis, Mabin, Phillips, and Smith for their contributions - this starting foursome looks to get even better next year.  And add to them S Peters, who played significant time, along with backups S Arnold and CB Bolden, and the injured CB Vaughn - and there is a ton of talent on this team - it will be up to DC Hankwitz to utilize all that they have to offer.  They have shown that they can keep up with virtually every receiver, and now they'll have their own high expectations to live up to going forward.

Special Teams

Grade: B-
Stats: 20/25 FGs (80.0%), 30/34 XPs (88.2%), 19.6 yds/kickoff return, (97th, 9th), 18.4 yds/kickoff return allowed, (12th, 2nd), 8.3 yds/punt return (70th, 9th), 9.6 yds/punt return allowed (69th, 7th), 34.1 net punt yds/punt (75th, 9th), .
Overall: Fitz is the team's special team coach and he emphasizes this aspect of the game for the 'Cats, which has both come to hurt and to help NU.  The FG kicking was solid, as were coverage teams (outside of one punt in the Alamo Bowl), but the return game was almost completely a disappointment.  The battery of LS Brunner and H Daley was rock solid and it will be tough to replace those outgoing seniors.  Villarreal, who was rather good on kicking, will also have to be replaced.  Overall, though, the fact that the coverage teams were for the most part solid helped this unit as a whole - gone are the days when NU fans have to hold their breath every time NU kicks or punts the ball.

Place Kicker: B+  Villarreal was, as already mentioned, rather reliable in the FG kicking game.  Yes, he missed some XPs, but overall he was a reliable kicker and will be tough to replace.

Kickoffs: A-  NU did an excellent job covering kicks, ranking 12th nationally in kickoff return yards allowed (2nd in the conference).  What was disappointing was that NU had to resort to pooch kicks in the Alamo Bowl since Fitz didn't trust the coverage team that did so well during the year.  Their ability to pin opponents deep was key throughout the season and a welcomed change from seasons gone by where opposing return men could do serious damage.

Punting: B+  The unique rugby style punts and 3x3 punt formation did NU well by limiting returns, but the 'Cats could never get a huge swing in field position thanks to the punt team - and, of course, there is that TD return by Maclin in the Alamo Bowl.  What they did do, though, was place punts very well, hitting an impressive 26 of 64 punts inside the 20 yard line.  Another advantage is that the punting style did allow NU to recover a muffed punt against Michigan.

Returns: D  The stats show that NU's return game was just bad - ranking 9th in the conference in both kick and punt returning.  Note that NU routinely used young guys on kickoff returns (Simmons, Ebert, Matthews, etc.) and typically stuck with Smith on punt returns.  But not all the blame goes on the return men, the blocking schemes were lacking and didn't give them much of a chance.  Outside of a couple of 40 yard kick returns and Brendan Smith's 51 yard punt return against Illinois to set up the breakaway score (which was the longest punt return in 3 years for NU), there was virtually nothing to talk about.  Overall the return game didn't exactly do the offense any favors in terms of field position.


Grade: A  It's hard to give the coaching anything other than an A given NU's response to adversity (injuries and otherwise) during the year and the fact that they achieved a 9 win season for just the 5th time in school history (yes, I've beaten that fact to death, but it must be done).  Fitz did a great job as the head man and has truly come into his own.  DC Hankwitz did a mindblowing job and in my book was the assistant coach of the year nationally.  OC McCall's accomplishments were a bit less, but arguably much of the year was spent learning his system and then overcoming the OL's inexperience.  But the coaching staff made good decision after good decision and showed that they recruited a bunch of guys who can get the job done.

Other Stats

(national rank, conference rank): turnover margin -0.23/game (73rd, 7th), time of possession 28:44 (97th, 9th), 4.7 penalties/game (20th, 3rd), 43.6 penalty yards/game (T-33rd, T-5th).
Notes: Not much to note here except that turnovers killed NU, time of possession is meaningless (Mizzou, who beat NU in the Alamo Bowl, was actually lower than NU), and Northwestern continues its disciplined style of play under Coach Fitz.

Final Note

2008 was a season for the NU record books - for now.  Hopefully, Coach Fitzgerald is using this as a foundation for future success as NU looks to go bowling year after year and add many more teams to the "9 win club" and maybe some to the double digit club (currently, only 1995 and, debatably, 1903 hold that mark).  We saw the defense make an astounding turnaround and the team as a whole work to achieve 9 victories and play in a competitive bowl game against a highly touted opponent.  NU made it through the regular season nonconference opponents undefeated and got off to the best start in over 40 years.  The 'Cats were ranked for the last few weeks of the regular season, including in all of the final regular season polls.  It was undoubtedly a successful season for Northwestern football and hopefully one of many to come.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

Previous jhodges commentary

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