It's time to pass out grades for the Northwestern Wildcats.
If you're looking for reasons why Northwestern fell short of preseason expectations, don't blame this unit. The offense did its part, finishing second in the league in yards per game (432.8) and leading the league in passing (256.6 ypg) despite operating under difficult circumstances. Star quarterback Dan Persa missed the first three games and chunks of several others, but dynamic sophomore Kain Colter emerged to steady the ship. Colter developed into one of the best all-around weapons in the Big Ten -- 589 rush yards, 660 pass yards, 454 receiving yards -- and led Northwestern to its signature victory at Nebraska on Nov. 5. Persa wasn't quite the same player when he returned from injury but still put up impressive numbers, completing 74.2 percent of his passes with 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Receiver Jeremy Ebert and superback Drake Dunsmore also stepped up. The unit had a miserable day at Army, and the running backs and offensive line left much to be desired for long stretches. But for the most part, the offense produced.
The defense could attribute last season's late collapse to Persa's morale-crushing injury, but the unit had no excuses this year. Northwestern seemed to take a step backward on defense, finishing 10th or worse in the league in most major statistical categories and dead last in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert 50 percent of their attempts. The secondary had no answers against decent to great receivers, the line generated a league-low 16 sacks and the linebackers were mediocre at best. A handful of stops likely would have equaled two to three more wins, but Northwestern's defense hardly ever came through in the clutch. Aside from All-Big Ten safety Brian Peters, the Wildcats lacked dynamic playmakers. Pat Fitzgerald is living proof that Northwestern can play good defense, but his team certainly didn't reflect its coach this season and hasn't since 2008.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C-
Northwestern made significant strides in the kicking game in 2010 but took a few steps back this fall. There weren't many major breakdowns, but the Wildcats didn't excel in many areas, either. They finished ninth in net punting and made a league-low six field goals on 10 attempts as first-year starter Jeff Budzien had some growing pains. Northwestern finished second in the league in punt-return average (12.8 ypr) but had only six runbacks. Returner Venric Mark wasn't quite as dynamic as he was in 2010.
The overall grade would have been lower if not for a late-season surge in which Northwestern captured four of its final five games. Perhaps it's a sign of progress at Northwestern when 6-6 is considered a disappointment by players, coaches and fans, but the team expected much more and should have with a large senior class. Persa's injury situation likely cost Northwestern at least one win, but the breakdowns on defense coupled with the lack of playmakers or development with the unit can't be ignored as Fitzgerald assesses his program. Northwestern still can record an important milestone -- its first postseason win since 1949 -- if it upsets Texas A&M on Dec. 31 in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.