Coaches grade players and we grade the players and coaches. The Big Ten postseason report card series marches on with the Northwestern Wildcats.
The emergence of freshman running back Justin Jackson (1,187 rush yards, 10 touchdowns) is the only thing saving Northwestern from a failing grade. If Northwestern's offense had been anywhere near standard levels the past two seasons, the team easily would have made bowl games. The line once again got pushed around too easily, quarterback Trevor Siemian struggled with his accuracy and dropped passes became a season-long theme for the receivers. Northwestern had no explosiveness -- only three FBS teams had fewer plays of 20 yards or longer than the Wildcats' 34 -- and while play calling didn't help, no one besides Jackson consistently stepped up.
Northwestern's defense hasn't blown anyone away the past two seasons, but it has been good enough for the team to win seven or eight games. The defense gave the offense ample opportunities to succeed in five of the team's seven losses. Six players recorded multiple interceptions, safety Ibraheim Campbell quietly had an excellent season and young players emerged like safety Godwin Igwebuike and linebacker Anthony Walker. The Wildcats rarely shut teams down and didn't generate consistent pressure, but the defense did its part in most games.
Special teams: D-plus
The preseason departure of Venric Mark really stung, as Northwestern never generated much of a return game, especially on punt returns (a meager nine attempts). Coach Pat Fitzgerald was less inclined to attempt long field goals following Jeff Budzien's departure, but Jack Mitchell was solid from inside 40 yards and hit the game-winning 45-yarder at Notre Dame. Punting continued to be a major weakness (116th nationally) and coverage teams were mixed.
Fitzgerald and his staff faced plenty of challenges, including the union debate and Mark's shocking preseason exit, but Northwestern didn't look prepared for its first two games and dropped both. The Wildcats also were smacked 48-7 by a mediocre Iowa team following an open week. Northwestern had three quality wins -- Wisconsin, Penn State and Notre Dame -- but struggled at home for the second straight season. The offensive scheme was wholly unimaginative and Fitzgerald's conservative slant surfaced too often. Northwestern showed some of its trademark resiliency but not nearly enough.
Northwestern hasn't had much go its way the past two seasons, especially from an injury standpoint. But good programs have ingredients to sustain success, and Northwestern is still searching for the right formula. The Wildcats never found an offensive identity. As Fitzgerald often noted, they struggled with maturity. They couldn't defend their home turf (2-5 at Ryan Field). Northwestern showed it can beat decent teams but never displayed enough consistency to be a decent team itself.