An 8-4 record seemed like a reasonable expectation for Northwestern in August, so you could say the Wildcats' season went according to plan.
And you'd be totally wrong.
Few envisioned this type of 8-4 campaign for Pat Fitzgerald's team, which overcame injuries and poor play in September and early October to reach a New Year's Day bowl game for the first time in 13 years. It took some wild comebacks, a season-changing play at Iowa and the emergence of several new stars, but the Wildcats are going bowling in back-to-back years for just the second time in team history.
Early on, it seemed like much of the progress made last season would go to waste. A defense that had reshaped its image in 2008 flopped in losses to Syracuse and Minnesota. Northwestern struggled to beat woeful teams like Eastern Michigan and Miami (Ohio). Quarterback Mike Kafka showed obvious growth, but he struggled in the clutch and got no help from the run game.
But after wild comebacks against both Purdue and Indiana, NU stunned undefeated Iowa in Iowa City for the third straight time and went 3-0 in November. Kafka became one of the league's most valuable players, while Zeke Markshausen blossomed as a surprise star at wide receiver. A beat-up defense eventually got on track and forced critical turnovers in wins against Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin, while line play picked up on both sides of the ball.
Offensive MVP: Mike Kafka. Few players meant more to their teams than the senior quarterback, who deservedly earned second-team All-Big Ten honors for the Wildcats. A run-first quarterback for much of his career, Kafka developed into a precision passer, leading the Big Ten in completion percentage (65.7) and ranking second in total offense (263.6 ypg).
Defensive MVP: Sherrick McManis. It's a close call between McManis and safety Brad Phillips, but the senior cornerback made a difference every time he stepped on the field. His interception late in the first half at Purdue sparked a major comeback, and his absence against Syracuse likely cost Northwestern a victory. An honorable mention goes to Phillips, a first-team All-Big Ten selection by the coaches.
Turning point: Two come to mind. Northwestern trailed Indiana 28-3 on Oct. 24 before mounting the biggest comeback in team history. A New Year's Day bowl seemed virtually impossible at the time. The more memorable moment came Nov. 7 against Iowa, when defensive end Corey Wootton sacked Ricky Stanzi in the end zone, knocking the ball loose for a touchdown and knocking Stanzi out of the game. Northwestern trailed 10-0 at the time but rallied to win.
What's next: Northwestern aims for its first bowl victory in 60 years as it takes on Auburn in the Outback Bowl (ESPN, 11 a.m. ET). The Wildcats need to get over the hump in the postseason to truly gain league-wide respect. The team must replace Kafka, McManis, Phillips and Wootton in the offseason.