2011 Northwestern review: Wait continues

Quarterback Kain Colter piled up 229 yards of total offense in Northwestern's upset of Nebraska. Eric Francis/Getty Images

Northwestern’s 2011 football season began with plenty of optimism, but ended with disappointment. Here’s a look back on the year that was for the Wildcats.

The 2011 season in nutshell: Northwestern had high expectations before the season. The Wildcats were coming off another bowl appearance, a winning season and had plenty of talent, including senior quarterback Dan Persa. They believed they could shock some and compete for the Big Ten title. The Wildcats’ season began to unravel just before their conference schedule. Northwestern was upset by Army on Sept. 17, the beginning of a five-game losing streak. The Wildcats fought back with four wins, including one at Nebraska, and became bowl eligible. With a chance to redeem its season in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas on Dec. 31, the Wildcats fell to Texas A&M 33-22 and suffered their first losing season since 2006. Northwestern’s bowl drought carries on to a 64th year.

Team MVP: Senior quarterback Persa and sophomore QB/wide receiver Kain Colter share this honor. Persa endured plenty of adversity since rupturing his Achilles tendon last season. He had an up-and-down year while trying to overcome setbacks, and he was still among the conference’s best quarterbacks. He completed 218 of 297 passes for 2,376 yards with 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He ended his career as the NCAA’s all-time leader in completion percentage. A lot was asked of Colter this season, and he came through in most situations. He passed for 673 yards and six touchdowns, rushed for 654 yards and nine touchdowns and caught 43 passes for 466 yards and three touchdowns.

Defensive MVP: Senior safety Brian Peters led the Wildcats with five interceptions and was second on the team with 92 tackles. He also had four tackles for loss and nine passes defended.

Unsung hero: For whatever reason, senior wide receiver Jeremy Ebert often gets overlooked. The Big Ten coaches didn’t even vote him on the all-conference second team this season despite having 75 receptions for 1,060 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Highest point of the season: Northwestern was a massive underdog heading into its Nov. 5 game against No. 9 Nebraska. Led by Colter who replaced an injured Persa, the Wildcats pulled out a 28-25 win in Lincoln. Colter ran for two touchdowns and passed for one in the second half.

Lowest point of the season: After leading 24-20 in the third quarter, Northwestern was outscored 14-0 by Penn State in the game’s final 16 minutes in a 34-24 loss. The Wildcats' fifth straight loss dropped them to 2-5 on the season.

Quote of the year: “They all stink. That's real eloquent, I know. They're all awful. They're all equally up there.” -- Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald after losing the bowl game.

Looking ahead: Expect Northwestern to give itself a long look in the mirror this offseason while the Wildcats try to figure out what went wrong this season. Their focus has to be on improving a defense that allowed too many home-run plays in 2011. There could also be a quarterback competition between Colter and redshirt freshman Trevor Siemian, and Northwestern will try again to find a consistent lead running back.