Midseason report: Northwestern Wildcats

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

NORTHWESTERN (5-1, 1-1 Big Ten)

It has already been a year of milestones for Northwestern, which swept its nonconference slate for the first time since 1963 and started 5-0 for the first time since 1962. The Wildcats made dramatic improvements on defense thanks to first-year coordinator Mike Hankwitz, and their aggressive style better reflects head coach Pat Fitzgerald, a Hall of Fame linebacker for the team. The defensive surge obscures some problems on offense, as Northwestern continues the big-yards, little-points pattern that took place the last two seasons. Despite fading in the national spotlight against Michigan State, a decent bowl run remains likely.

Offensive MVP -- Other Big Ten running backs have better numbers, but none is more versatile than Wildcats senior Tyrell Sutton. He continues to be a major factor in the passing game, ranking third on the team in receptions (24), and still averages more than 100 rushing yards a game. Northwestern entered the season wanting to get Sutton between 20-25 touches per game, and though the back has missed parts of two games, he averages 22.3 touches and 133.8 all-purpose yards.

Defensive MVP -- Northwestern knew Corey Wootton could be special when he arrived on campus, and Hankwitz's scheme has finally allowed the defensive end to blossom. Wootton has 8 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks on a defense that is tied for the Big Ten lead in that category (19). He also plays a big role in Northwestern's run defense, which allows an average of only 33 rush yards in the final two quarters. Other notables include Malcolm Arrington and Vince Browne.

What's next -- The Wildcats can't afford a Michigan State hangover as they face two struggling teams (Purdue, Indiana) before hosting an Ohio State squad that has dominated the series. As good as the defense has been, senior quarterback C.J. Bacher will need to elevate his play for the team to reach a decent bowl game. Bacher continues to struggle with interceptions after throwing 19 last season. If he limits mistakes and Northwestern executes better in the red zone, eight or nine wins is certainly within reach.