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Wednesday, December 18, 2013
Season report card: Northwestern

By Adam Rittenberg

Final exams are either ongoing or all wrapped up around the Big Ten. We're passing out grades, too, for each team's regular-season performance.

Each team receives a grade for offense, defense, special teams and overall play.

Up next: Northwestern.

Offense: D-minus

After several big performances in non-league play and a 437-yard output in the Big Ten opener against Ohio State, Northwestern's offense slid significantly and became a liability for most of the fall. A new-look line struggled to protect, quarterback Trevor Siemian made costly mistakes and the rhythm and occasional explosiveness that defined the unit for years disappeared. Northwestern finished 11th in the league in both scoring (26.2 ppg) and sacks allowed (36), and it committed 20 turnovers.

Injuries played a significant role in Northwestern's struggles. Venric Mark, a second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2012, played only one full game because of myriad injuries. Quarterback Kain Colter also was banged up throughout the season, and head coach Pat Fitzgerald revealed after the season that Siemian played through a heel injury during the Big Ten slate. The injury bug hit the running back spot especially hard as Stephen Buckley suffered a season-ending injury against Nebraska, and Treyvon Green also was slowed.

Northwestern operated with a limited playbook and never showcased the scheme that propelled it to 10 wins in 2012. The unit struggled to score touchdowns in the red zone -- a strength from the previous season -- and couldn't overcome costly penalties. Ultra conservative play calls also cropped up in Big Ten games, and a unit that had sparked Northwestern since 2000 became hard to watch.

Defense: B-minus

In most seasons, Northwestern's defense would have been good enough to help the team to at least eight wins. The Wildcats have had an offense lean since installing the spread before the 2000 campaign, while their defense had been a liability, especially against the pass. The defense held up in most games, although it could have secured wins against both Nebraska and Iowa with one more stop.

Northwestern was extremely opportunistic, recording 23 takeaways, including four for touchdowns. The Wildcats finished fifth in the league in sacks, thanks to effective rushers Tyler Scott, Dean Lowry and Ifeadi Odenigbo. The unit struggled against elite running backs like Carlos Hyde, Ameer Abdullah and Melvin Gordon, and fell victim to some big pass plays, most notably the Hail Mary at Nebraska. Northwestern missed cornerback Daniel Jones, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener at Cal.

The defense can't be absolved from the team's failure this season, but it put the offense in position to win all but two Big Ten games (Wisconsin and Michigan State). If Northwestern had been slightly more efficient in scoring points, it finishes 7-5 or 8-4. This is a unit that returns most of its key players in 2014 and could be pretty good.

Special teams: C

Jeff Budzien proved to be Northwestern's most consistent offensive threat, connecting on 23 of 25 field-goal attempts and all 35 of his extra-point tries en route to winning his second consecutive Big Ten kicker-of-the-year award. The coverage teams also were satisfactory, but Northwestern really missed Mark, who was an All-America punt returner in 2012. Northwestern only attempted nine punt returns all season and didn't get anything special from its kick returners. Punter Brandon Williams struggled and was replaced late in the season.

Overall: D

Northwestern fell significantly short of expectations, as it returned the core from a 10-win team and has a realistic shot at the Legends Division title. The team was snakebitten with injuries and bad luck and easily could have won three-to-four more games, but it repeatedly couldn't make the key plays in close contests. Personnel losses along both lines, especially the offensive front, cost Northwestern during Big Ten play, as the Wildcats endured their longest losing streak (seven games) since the 1998 season. Fitzgerald and his staff have a lot to evaluate in their first extended offseason in six years.

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