Northwestern season review: Superb defense leads to major climb

Very little was expected out of Northwestern coming into 2015.

The program's past two seasons had been marked by talk of labor unions and marred by injuries, as the Wildcats went 5-7 in back-to-back years. It didn't take long, however, for Pat Fitzgerald's team to prove that this was a new year with a new vibe.

Northwestern opened the season with a 16-6 upset of eventual Pac-12 champion Stanford, or at least it was considered an upset at the time. After the Wildcats finished 10-2 and No. 13 in the College Football Playoff rankings, we can safely say that win was merely a sign of good things to come.

This huge bounce-back season led to a New Year's Day matchup with Tennessee in the Outback Bowl and a shot at the school's first-ever 11-win season. A victory over the Volunteers could also vault Northwestern into a Top 10 finish, which seemed inconceivable as recently as late August.

Grading the offense: D-plus

You don't often see 10-win teams finishing last in their conference in scoring, but that's precisely what the Wildcats did by averaging just 20.7 points per game. They're tied for 112th out of 127 FBS teams in points scored this season. A large chunk of the offense was provided by sophomore workhorse tailback Justin Jackson, who ran for 1,344 yards on a Big Ten-leading 298 carries. Fitzgerald mostly kept things simple for redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson, who completed just 51.7 percent of his passing attempts. But Thorson did run for five touchdowns and showed a knack for making a big play in key moments. Ultimately, this offense did just enough in most games.

Grading the defense: A

This was a fast, hard-hitting defense that Fitzgerald, a former star linebacker at the school, built in his own image. It hed Stanford without a touchdown, pitched a shutout against Minnesota and held Wisconsin to seven points on the road. Northwestern allowed just 16.3 points per game and had outstanding players at every level, including defensive end Dean Lowry, breakout star Anthony Walker at linebacker and strong cover corners Matthew Harris and Nick VanHoose. Only a two-game midseason slide versus Michigan and Iowa, when the Wildcats surrendered 78 points in their only losses, keeps this from being an A-plus.

Grading the special teams: B-minus

Northwestern wasn't spectacular anywhere in the kicking game, but it didn't hurt itself too often in that aspect either (an exception: giving up a touchdown on the opening kickoff at Michigan, though that game was never going to turn out well). Jack Mitchell hit a 35-yard field goal with nine seconds left to beat Penn State in the team's most memorable special teams play of the season. Solomon Vault also was one of the league's top return men and went 97 yards for a score in the win at Duke.

Grading the coaching: A

If not for Iowa's stunning 12-0 regular season or the job Mark Dantonio did in keeping Michigan State together, Fitzgerald could have easily won Big Ten coach of the year honors. Many called for a staff shakeup following the two straight 5-7 disappointments, but Fitzgerald stayed loyal to his guys on staff. That paid off this year, especially with the excellent work by defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz and others on that side of the ball.

Player of the year: There are many candidates here, including Jackson and Lowry. But Walker was usually in the middle of everything for the Wildcats. He finished with 113 tackles and 19.5 tackles for loss while recovering a Big Ten-leading three fumbles. Walker made up for a lot of mistakes -- not that there were that many on this defense -- with his speed and sideline-to-sideline coverage.

Top play: Thorson's 42-yard run for a touchdown was all the offense Northwestern would really need to beat Stanford in the opener. The defense and special teams did the rest, and the Wildcats gained an immeasurable amount of confidence with that win.