Northwestern Wildcats season recap

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Northwestern didn't make the big national splash this fall as it did in the mid-1990s, but the program quietly took some key steps on the path to consistent success.

It started with a 4-0 sweep of the nonconference slate, a feat Northwestern hadn't accomplished since 1963. Even the school's league title-winning teams in 1995, 1996 and 2000 stumbled in nonleague play. Had Northwestern swept the nonconference portion in 2007 or merely gone 2-2 or better in 2004, the program would have made bowls in four of the last five years.

An even bigger breakthrough occurred on defense. Led by first-year coordinator Mike Hankwitz, Northwestern led the Big Ten in sacks (33) and ranked 23rd nationally in scoring defense (19.3 ppg). A unit that had finished no better than 68th nationally since Northwestern installed the spread offense in 2000 improved to 53rd this season. The Wildcats defense allowed 17 points or fewer in seven of the team's nine wins and made the nation's fifth-largest improvement in points allowed.

The offense didn't light up the scoreboard as it had in past seasons, and a young offensive line and erratic quarterback play hurt the team at times. But newfound depth helped Northwestern survive injuries to quarterback C.J. Bacher and running back Tyrell Sutton, and the Wildcats won three of their final four games after a potentially disastrous loss at Indiana.

An Alamo Bowl matchup against Missouri awaits Northwestern, but head coach Pat Fitzgerald has built some momentum for a program that has been very competitive in Big Ten play since 1995.

Offensive MVP -- Wide receiver Eric Peterman
After a slow start, Peterman came on strong during Big Ten play to lead the Wildcats in receiving yards (654) for the second consecutive season. The senior had a team-high five touchdown catches and also threw a touchdown pass in a win against Purdue. Fellow wideout Ross Lane deserves a mention, and Sutton was very productive before suffering a dislocated wrist Oct. 25 at Indiana.

Defensive MVP -- Defensive end Corey Wootton
Hankwitz's system allowed Wootton to start reaching his enormous potential, and the junior earned All-Big Ten honors after anchoring the league's top pass rush. Wootton finished fifth in the Big Ten in sacks (9) and seventh in tackles for loss (15). The 6-foot-7 end had seven quarterback hurries, a blocked kick, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Safety Brad Phillips also merits a mention.

Turning point -- Nov. 1 at Minnesota
Northwestern limped into the Metrodome, having lost Sutton, Bacher and starting middle linebacker Malcolm Arrington to injuries in the previous two games. But backup quarterback Mike Kafka sizzled in his first start since 2006, setting a Big Ten quarterback rushing record with 217 yards. Kafka kept the offense afloat, and the defense sealed a dramatic win as Brendan Smith returned an interception for a touchdown with 12 seconds remaining.

What's next
The Wildcats are heavy underdogs in the Alamo Bowl, but their first postseason win since the 1949 Rose Bowl would cap a very strong season. Northwestern must replace its starting offensive backfield, but Kafka appears to be a capable replacement at quarterback and a very young offensive line will be a year older. The core returns on defense, and Northwestern should be in position for another bowl game in 2009.