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Season recap: Northwestern

12/7/2011

NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS

Record: 6-6 (3-5 Big Ten)

Northwestern's chances of making a fourth straight bowl game were in serious doubt in late October. A 2-5 start, marked by an extremely porous defense and the on-again, off-again health status of quarterback Dan Persa, did not offer much optimism.

But then the Wildcats responded with four straight victories, the highlight of which was a 28-25 upset at then-No. 10 Nebraska that nobody saw coming. A defense that head coach Pat Fitzgerald said had to go through some "growing pains" finally started to grow into, if not a dominant unit, then at least a competent one. Northwestern allowed an average of 38.6 points in its first five Big Ten games; over the team's final four games of the season, that number dropped to 18.8.

The Nebraska win still looks like an outlier on a résumé that includes victories over Indiana, Minnesota, Rice, Eastern Illinois and Boston College. But the Wildcats became a tougher opponent once Persa finally healed from last year's Achilles' tendon injury. He passed for an average of 278 yards over the final three games with eight touchdowns, and his 74.2 completion percentage actually bettered last year's record-breaking 73.5 percent mark. Kain Colter was an excellent understudy and jack-of-all-trades weapon, while no one enjoyed Persa's return more than receiver Jeremy Ebert (71 catches, 1,025 yards and 11 touchdowns).

Fitzgerald still needs to install some more toughness in the program, especially on the defensive end where he excelled in college. But at least while he's trying to recruit that toughness, he can point to the accomplishment of four straight bowl games.

Offensive MVP: Kain Colter. Persa and Ebert may have more impressive numbers, but nobody did more for the team than Colter. He kept the offense together when Persa couldn't play, most memorably leading the charge to victory in Lincoln. Arguably the best athlete on the team, Colter led the Wildcats in rushing (589 yards and eight touchdowns) and was their third-leading receiver (40 catches for 454 yards and three scores). Defenses never knew quite what to expect when he was on the field.

Defensive MVP: Safety Brian Peters. There weren't a lot of standouts on the Northwestern defense this year, but Peters provided an anchor. He had four interceptions, including one in the end zone against Minnesota despite wearing a cast on his broken left hand. He also made 85 tackles and forced two fumbles. Fitzgerald credited Peters with being one of the senior leaders who helped the defense improve down the stretch.

Turning point: Nov. 5. The win over Nebraska continued Northwestern's recent trend of knocking off at least one good opponent on the road. More than that, it provided hope that the team could get to six wins and gave some much-needed confidence to the defense. The Wildcats' only loss after Oct. 29 came in the finale against Legends Division champion Michigan State.

What's next: A date with Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. Houston is an important recruiting area for Fitzgerald, so this game provides great exposure. More importantly, the school is still looking for its first bowl victory since the 1948 Rose Bowl, so beating an A&M team that fired its head coach is top priority.