Northwestern entered the season with a big question mark at quarterback and enough answers elsewhere on the two-deep.
Dan Persa eased all concerns about the most important position on the field, but he didn't get enough help for Northwestern to build on a 5-0 start.
The Wildcats still made history by clinching a team-record third consecutive bowl appearance and recording three consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1958-60. They maintained their recent success against Iowa, beating the Hawkeyes for the third straight year and for the fifth time in six seasons. But losses in five of the final seven regular-season games, plus the season-ending loss of Persa to a ruptures Achilles' tendon, put a damper on things heading into December.
Persa was brilliant from the get-go, showing incredible accuracy and the mobility to keep the chains moving. He formed a strong connection with All-Big Ten receiver Jeremy Ebert and others, but a veteran offensive line didn't perform to expectations and Northwestern once again struggled to run the ball.
The flaws on defense were there during the 5-0 start, as Northwestern endured stretches of missed tackles and didn't get enough from its linebackers.
The Wildcats were close, building big leads against Michigan State and Penn State before stumbling. Northwestern could be the classic year-away team, but it needs to build more around Persa.
Offensive MVP: Dan Persa. Who else? Persa set a Big Ten record for completion percentage (73.5) -- since broken by Wisconsin's Scott Tolzien -- and passed for 2,581 yards with 15 touchdowns and just four interceptions in only 10 games. He also led the team in both rushing attempts (164) and rushing touchdowns (9) and finished second in rushing yards (519). Persa earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the league's coaches.
Defensive MVP: Bryce McNaul. The junior linebacker finally stayed healthy and made his presence known for an up-and-down defense. McNaul recorded 61 tackles, including five for loss and a sack, to go along with a forced fumble in only 10 games played. Defensive end Vince Browne, safety Brian Peters and linebacker Nate Williams also merit mentions here.
Turning point: The Iowa game. Northwestern finally put it all together Nov. 13 for what was a signature victory at the time (Iowa came in ranked No. 13), but the Wildcats also lost Persa for the season as the star quarterback injured himself throwing the decisive touchdown pass. Two blowout losses followed as Northwestern finished the regular season at 7-5.
What's next: Northwestern aims for its first bowl victory since the 1949 Rose when it takes on Texas Tech in the inaugural TicketCity Bowl on Jan. 1 in Dallas. The Wildcats have a month to prepare backup quarterback Evan Watkins after the redshirt freshman struggled against Illinois and Wisconsin. The defense really needs to pick up its play after surrendering 118 points in its last two games.