It's time once again to break out the red pens and distribute some Big Ten grades. We're doing two-a-days to finish these up before the Jan. 1 bowls.
The latest hopeful student is Northwestern.
We had gotten used to Northwestern fielding a prolific passing approach the past couple of years, but the Wildcats flipped the script on us in 2012. They scored a bunch of points (31.5 ppg, third-best in the Big Ten) but did so mostly on the strength of their running attack. Venric Mark was one of the top breakout players in the league and the country, rushing for 1,310 yards and 10 touchdowns. Northwestern juggled quarterbacks early in the season but did better when it stuck with Kain Colter, who was another rushing threat for defenses to worry about (796 rushing yards, eight touchdowns). The passing game was a bit disappointing despite boasting a deep receiving corps, as the Wildcats had only the No. 11 aerial attack in the Big Ten and were No. 108 nationally in passing. That and an inability to close out a few games cost this offense a chance at an "A" grade, though some extra credit work in the bowl game would get it there for sure.
After last year's very porous defensive effort, the Wildcats made significant strides in 2012. They got much better against the run, ranking No. 18 nationally in rush defense with an underrated defensive line. Tyler Scott emerged as a force up front with seven sacks, and linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo always seemed to be in the middle of big plays. Northwestern allowed fewer than 23 points per game. However, the secondary once again proved problematic, especially after cornerback Nick VanHoose got hurt. The Wildcats were last in the Big Ten in passing defense, and breakdowns there were extremely costly in the come-from-ahead losses to Nebraska and Michigan. Still, more often than not the defense put the team in position to win.
Special teams: A
Northwestern really shined in the kicking game. Mark was an All-American at punt returner, while Jeff Budzien was nearly perfect on field goal attempts (17-of-18). The punting unit also did its job well. Kickoff coverage was the only area that was a little lacking, but that's just nitpicking.
Raise your hand if you had Northwestern winning nine games and finishing No. 20 in the BCS standings this year. Thought so. While the collapses against Nebraska and Michigan still sting, only a pessimist would fail to see that Pat Fitzgerald and his staff squeezed just about all they could out of this young team in 2012. The Wildcats led in the fourth quarter of every game and were a handful of plays away from going undefeated. But dwelling on the missed opportunities obscures the games they did pull out, like the nail-biting road wins at Syracuse and Michigan State, or the excellent home performances against Vanderbilt, Indiana, Iowa and Illinois. Northwestern can take a lot of pride in the way it played this season and will bring many key pieces back next season. Now it just needs to go win a bowl game.
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