Big Ten: Bryce McNaul

We continue our postseason position rankings today as we move on to the linebackers.

Not surprisingly, Linebacker U takes the top spot, though it was a very close call. Depth helped the top two teams on this list, while star power marked spots Nos. 3 through 5. After that, it's a bit of a dropoff.

Away we go ...

[+] EnlargeGerald Hodges
Rob Christy/US PresswireGerald Hodges led a deep group of Penn State linebackers this past season.
1. Penn State: We thought this group could be the deepest linebacking corps in the league this past season, and that depth proved both true and invaluable when starter Michael Mauti went out in the fourth game of the season. Even without him, the Nittany Lions' linebackers played great, led by first team All-Big Ten performer Gerald Hodges, who had a breakout campaign. Nate Stupar filled in nicely for Mauti, and Glenn Carson was solid in his first year as a starter in the middle.

2. Michigan State: We wondered in the preseason how the Spartans would replace stars Greg Jones and Eric Gordon. The answer: very nicely, thank you. Sophomores Denicos Allen and Max Bullough emerged as fierce playmakers, especially on the blitz, and Chris Norman provided steady play on the weak side. All three return in 2012 to give Penn State a run for its money as the best group in the league.

3. Wisconsin: Mike Taylor and Chris Borland were finally healthy in the same season, and what a difference that made. They were a terrific pair, combining for 293 tackles and becoming the only Big Ten duo to average more than 10 tackles per game each. Taylor in particular made great strides. Kevin Claxton was overshadowed a bit as the third Badgers linebacker, but that's understandable given the amount of plays Borland and Taylor made.

4. Illinois: The emergence of Jonathan Brown (108 tackles, 19.5 for loss) as fire-breathing pass-rusher made this unit better than we projected in the preseason. Ian Thomas also had a good season at the position with 85 tackles, and Trulon Henry rounded out a strong crew before he missed time late following a shooting incident. The Illini defense stayed consistent throughout the team's struggles.

5. Nebraska: Depth was not a strong suit for the Huskers by any means, but there was no better linebacker in the league and few better in the nation than All-American Lavonte David. He had 133 tackles and countless big plays. Will Compton came on as the season wore along to provide a good complement to David. Finding consistent play elsewhere at the position was a challenge for Nebraska.

6. Ohio State: We pegged the Buckeyes at No. 3 in our preseason linebacker rankings, but it wasn't a vintage year for a group that struggled down the stretch drive. Andrew Sweat led the way with 72 tackles despite missing two games because of injury, and Etienne Sabino had a decent season (62 tackles, 6.5 for loss) if not the breakout season many had predicted. Freshman Ryan Shazier announced himself late in the year as a potential star in the making.

7. Michigan: The Wolverines' defense surprised everyone in 2011, though the defensive line was clearly the vanguard on that side of the ball. Kenny Demens led the team with 94 tackles, while freshmen Desmond Morgan and Jake Ryan made an immediate impact as starters. This wasn't an overwhelming group, but it was one that mostly did its job.

8. Iowa: The Hawkeyes had a hard time keeping everybody healthy and consistent, but this spot might have been the best part of their defense. James Morris and Christian Kirksey tied for the team lead with 110 tackles each, while Tyler Nielsen added 73 stops while battling some nagging injuries. The Iowa defense overall was disappointing, however.

9. Purdue: Danny Hope usually knew what to expect from week to week out of his linebackers: solid, consistent play. Joe Holland, Dwayne Beckford and Will Lucas each had between 82 and 94 stops as the top three tacklers on the team. Lucas and Holland also recorded double-digit tackles for loss. The chief complaint here is that the Boilermakers gave up some big point totals during the season.

10. Minnesota: The Gophers struggled up front and in the secondary, but linebacker was their most experienced and reliable defensive position, as expected. Veterans Gary Tinsley, Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper played in every game, and were among the most consistent players on the team. Tinsley led the way with four sacks. Florida transfer Brendan Beal was expected to make an impact, but missed the season with a knee injury.

11. Northwestern: It wasn't a very good year overall for the Wildcats' defense, and linebacker was no exception. David Nwabuisi ranked third on the team with 84 tackles, while Bryce McNaul was right behind with 76. But Northwestern's starting trio combined for just 2.5 sacks and didn't come up with enough difference-making plays throughout the season.

12. Indiana: The good news for the Hoosiers was that Jeff Thomas was the best player on defense in 2011, finishing with 80 tackles, including 10.5 for loss. The bad news is that he was a senior. Besides Thomas, Indiana was forced to go young at the position, playing freshmen Chase Hoobler, Mike Replogle and Mark Murphy, a safety/linebacker hybrid, at times during the season. Kevin Wilson hopes the experience makes them better in '12, but this is yet another position that needs vast improvement going forward.
Northwestern's struggling defense should get a boost Saturday at No. 10 Nebraska.

Defensive end Tyler Scott and linebacker Bryce McNaul, sidelined with injuries last week against Indiana, don't appear on the team's official injury report released Thursday afternoon. Safety David Arnold, who has appeared in only three games this season mostly because of injury, is listed as questionable with an ankle injury.

Defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt is out for the Nebraska game with a foot injury.

Although Northwestern doesn't always list every banged-up player on the report, this appears to be good news.

No major changes on Minnesota's injury report for the Michigan State game. Coach Jerry Kill said this week that receiver/return man Marcus Jones would miss the remainder of the season with a knee injury.

Here's Minnesota's injury report:

OUT
  • LB Brendan Beal (knee)
  • OL Josh Campion (head)
  • OL Jimmy Gjere (head)
  • DL Eric Jacques (ankle)
  • WR Marcus Jones (knee)
  • CB Troy Stoudermire (arm)

Wildcats, Gophers down key players

October, 28, 2011
10/28/11
8:00
AM ET
Northwestern and Minnesota both will be without some key players for Saturday's games.

Here are the injury reports for both teams released Thursday night.

NORTHWESTERN

Out
MINNESOTA

Out
  • LB Brendan Beal, knee
  • OL Josh Campion, head
  • OL Jimmy Gjere, head
  • WR/KR Marcus Jones, knee
  • CB Troy Stoudermire, arm
  • RB Devon Wright, hamstring

McNaul and Scott both are starters, so Northwestern's beleaguered defense will be shorthanded at Indiana. Senior Kevin Watt likely will start for Scott, while senior Ben Johnson or redshirt freshman Chi Chi Ariguzo could step in for McNaul, the team's No. 3 tackler.

The key absence from the injury report is senior quarterback Dan Persa (turf toe), who returned to practice in the middle of the week and is expected to play.

Jones is one of the new names on Minnesota's injury report for Saturday's home game against Iowa. The freshman has averaged 28.5 yards per kickoff return with a touchdown against Purdue. He also has nine receptions for 142 yards.

Midseason report: Northwestern

October, 11, 2011
10/11/11
8:00
AM ET
Northwestern Wildcats

Record: 2-3 (0-2 Big Ten)

The first half of Northwestern's season has mirrored its performances in recent games: things start off great, only to take a nosedive. After a school-record three consecutive bowl appearances, Northwestern entered the fall with high hopes and a Heisman Trophy candidate in QB Dan Persa. But Persa's surgically repaired Achilles' injury prevented him from playing in the first three games -- the senior had a setback in June, although it didn't stop the school from launching a Heisman campaign -- and likely cost Northwestern a Week 3 win against Army. The season still began with promise as backup quarterback Kain Colter led Northwestern to a road win against Boston College. But Colter struggled mightily in the Army game, and though Persa has performed well since his return for the Big Ten opener against Illinois, Northwestern is mired in a troubling trend. The Wildcats have blown double-digit second-half leads in each of their first two Big Ten games and gone on to lose. The second-half collapses mirror what we saw last year in losses to Michigan State and Penn State. The offense will produce with Persa on the field, but Northwestern's defense is a huge concern. Northwestern ranks last in the Big Ten in yards allowed and 11th in points allowed. The Wildcats can't get off of the field -- opponents are converting third downs at a 54.8 percent clip -- and their secondary has major holes. An inability to put together complete performances has hurt Northwestern, which might struggle to continue its streak of bowl appearances.

Offensive MVP: Quarterback Kain Colter. While Persa has been terrific since his return, Northwestern is 0-2 with their leader on the field. Colter led the Wildcats to their only two victories, racking up 180 rush yards and four touchdowns against Boston College and Eastern Illinois. While his struggles against Army showed he hasn't arrived yet, he stepped up during Persa's absence. Wide receiver Jeremy Ebert (26 receptions, 5 TDs) also merits a mention.

Defensive MVP: Safety Brian Peters. As poorly as Northwestern's secondary has performed, it would be even worse without Peters. The senior has recorded two interceptions, including a nifty grab in the end zone against Illinois, and added a forced fumble, two pass breakups, a sack and 35 tackles. Linebacker Bryce McNaul merits a mention here.
Northwestern has released its depth chart for next week's season opener at Boston College. Although Dan Persa's injury status remains up in the air, the senior is listed as the starting quarterback ahead of sophomore Kain Colter.

A few other notes:
  • Mike Trumpy and Jacob Schmidt are listed as co-starters at running back. Wildcats coaches were calling Schmidt the No. 1 back in camp, although some saw it as a way to motivate Trumpy, clearly the team's top ball-carrier late in the 2010 season. Although both players will see time against Boston College, expect Trumpy to get more carries.
  • True freshman wide receiver Christian Jones really impressed me at Wednesday's practice, and he appears to have been rewarded for a strong camp. Although Northwestern is very deep at receiver, the 6-3, 225-pound Jones is listed as a co-starter with Rashad Lawrence. Expect big things from Jones this fall.
  • Redshirt freshman Brandon Vitabile has locked up the starting center spot, while Ben Burkett, who started the past three seasons at center, moves to right guard.
  • The Wildcats linebacker situation seems fluid, but Ben Johnson, David Nwabuisi and Bryce McNaul enter Week 1 as the starters.
  • Tyler Scott has moved ahead of Kevin Watt for a starting defensive end spot opposite All-Big Ten candidate Vince Browne.
  • Jeff Budzien is listed as the starting place-kicker, although Steve Flaherty will handle kickoffs. Redshirt freshman Ibraheim Campbell joins return specialist Venric Mark on kickoff runbacks.

Big Ten lunch links

August, 12, 2011
8/12/11
12:00
PM ET
Ohio State's appearance before the NCAA's infractions committee is under way, and we'll have reaction later today on the blog.

Now, to the links.
It's time to jump back into our preseason position group rankings. We've made our way through the offenses and the front line of the defenses. Now it's time to take a look at the linebackers.

As always, this is a ranking of the entire position group, so depth matters in addition to individual star players.

Away we go:

[+] EnlargeLavonte David
AP Photo/Nati HarnikNebraska's Lavonte David led the Big 12 last season with 152 tackles.
1. Nebraska: Lavonte David set the school record with 152 tackles last year, best in the Big 12. He also added 15 tackles for loss and six sacks on his way to second-team All-America honors. David was a one-man wrecking crew last year but should get more help this year. Will Compton returns after an injury-shortened season, and Sean Fisher is back after a broken leg cost him all of 2010. With an excellent defensive front leading the way, the Cornhuskers' linebackers should make plenty of impact plays.

2. Penn State: Is this the return of Linebacker U? The Nittany Lions technically only return one starter at the position but have plenty of talent. The unit got hit by injuries last year, including one that knocked Michael Mauti out of the lineup for several games. He's one of the best in the Big Ten when healthy, which he should be in 2011. Senior Nate Stupar led the team in tackles last year. Sophomores Gerald Hodges and Khairi Fortt are among the skilled youngsters battling for playing time. This could wind up as the deepest linebacking corps in the league.

3. Ohio State: The Buckeyes lost two starters, including leading tackler Brian Rolle. But the Silver Bullets usually reload at linebacker. Senior Andrew Sweat should emerge as the unit's leader, and hopes are high for Etienne Sabino after he took a redshirt year in 2010. Sabino showed promise this spring and locked down a starting job. The battle is on for the third starting position. Incoming freshman Curtis Grant could make a sudden impact.

4. Wisconsin: Much depends on the health of Chris Borland, who missed nearly all of 2010 and sat out the spring with a shoulder injury. The 2009 Big Ten Freshman of the Year will move to middle linebacker and should anchor the unit if he's sound. Mike Taylor finished second on the team in tackles for loss and interceptions last year, and Kevin Claxton is expected to take over at the strongside spot. The Badgers like what they have seen from redshirt freshman Marcus Trotter.

5. Iowa: The Hawkeyes lost a lot of experience from the 2010 team, including leading tackler Jeremiha Hunter. While there's some concern about the leadership void, Iowa has good young building blocks here. James Morris was pressed into service as a true freshman and was terrific; another year of development should only make him better. Tyler Nielsen was missed down the stretch when he suffered a neck injury, and the senior provides a veteran presence. Players like Bruce Davis, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens need to take on bigger roles.

[+] EnlargeGreg Jones
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesReplacing two-time All-American Greg Jones will be a tall order for the Spartans.
6. Michigan State: It would be difficult to overstate how much the Spartans will miss two-time All-American Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, who combined to start 95 games in their illustrious careers. But life goes on. The lone returning starter, Chris Norman, is a dependable veteran. The Spartans hope Max Bullough and Denicos Allen build on their potential, and TyQuan Hammock inspired confidence with his play this spring.

7. Minnesota: An experienced linebacker group could be the strength of the Gophers defense this season. All three starters -- leading tackler Gary Tinsley, Keanon Cooper and Mike Rallis -- are back. Rallis needs to stay healthy after only appearing in 12 games the past two years because of injuries. Florida transfer Brendan Beal should provide a boost.

8. Purdue: The Boilermakers are led by senior Joe Holland, who has 35 career starts under his belt. Junior Dwayne Beckford finished second on the team with 85 tackles a year ago. Will Lucas could break out after an excellent true freshman campaign. Senior Chris Carlino adds veteran depth.

9. Michigan: The Wolverines struggled defensively last year, and the linebackers shouldered some of the blame. They lost Jonas Mouton to the NFL. Cam Gordon moves down from safety and adds some playmaking ability. Kenny Demens had 82 tackles last year at middle linebacker. Freshman Jake Ryan should contribute right away. This group still has a lot to prove.

10. Illinois: The Illini have to rebuild after losing a pair of NFL draft picks at the position in Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey. Senior Ian Thomas now becomes the veteran leader. Sophomores Johnathan Brown and Houston Bates -- who had a strong spring -- will be counted on to step forward.

11. Indiana: Fifth-year senior Jeff Thomas could be the centerpiece of the Hoosiers defense. Another fifth-year senior is Leon Beckum, though he lacks top-end speed. Overall, there isn't a lot of depth here.

12. Northwestern: Linebacker play was a sore spot last season, and starters Nate Williams and Quentin Davie are gone. Bryce McNaul needs to recover all the way from shoulder surgery and has to stay healthy. Pat Fitzgerald thinks he has some talented young players at the position; they'll need to grow up fast.

Northwestern spring wrap

May, 4, 2011
5/04/11
8:00
AM ET
Northwestern

2010 overall record: 7-6

2010 conference record: 3-5 (T-7th)

Returning starters

Offense: 9; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

QB Dan Persa, WR Jeremy Ebert, LT Al Netter, C Ben Burkett, TE Drake Dunsmore, DE Vince Browne, CB Jordan Mabin, S Brian Peters, DT Jack DiNardo

Key losses

LB Quentin Davie, LB Nate Williams, DT Corbin Bryant, WR Sidney Stewart, G Keegan Grant, K Stefan Demos

2010 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Mike Trumpy* (530 yards)

Passing: Dan Persa* (2,581 yards)

Receiving: Jeremy Ebert* (953 yards)

Tackles: Brian Peters* (107)

Sacks: Vince Browne* (7)

Interceptions: Brian Peters* and Quentin Davie (3)

Spring answers

1. Trump(y) card: The run game has been Northwestern's biggest weakness during Pat Fitzgerald's tenure, but the staff feels it has a good No. 1 option in sophomore Mike Trumpy. After showing some good signs toward the end of the 2010 season, Trumpy continued to make strides this spring and ended up as the lone starter listed on the post-spring depth chart. Coordinator Mick McCall said Trumpy become a tougher and more complete back this spring. Northwestern needs him to be a consistent run threat in the fall.

2. Defensive depth emerges: Northwestern was a pretty bad defense toward the end of 2010, and depth played a large role in the unit's struggles. The team exited the spring feeling better about its depth and the athleticism it will have on the field this fall. Players like defensive end Tyler Scott, defensive tackle Niko Mafuli and safety Ibraheim Campbell put themselves in position to challenge projected starters in fall camp and log significant playing time this season.

3. Matthews corners market: Jeravin Matthews has been a bit of a journeyman for the Wildcats, a superb athlete without a position. But after starring on special teams in 2010, Matthews seems to have found his calling at cornerback. He quickly locked up the starting job opposite veteran Jordan Mabin. The 5-11, 175-pound Matthews looked more comfortable at the corner spot and gives the secondary a chance to be a strength for Northwestern this fall.

Fall questions

1. Backup quarterback: As Dan Persa continued his recovery from a ruptured Achilles', Northwestern's other quarterbacks took all the reps this spring in what Fitzgerald called a competition for the "No. 1" spot. Persa obviously will be the starter, but none of the other signal callers really separated himself as the backup. The Wildcats fell apart after Persa went down last November, so they'll need improvement from Kain Colter, Evan Watkins and Trevor Siemian before Sept. 3.

2. Linebacker: The spring featured plenty of competition, and it should only continue in August as Roderick Goodlow gets healthy and he and others push the projected starters. Seniors Bryce McNaul and Ben Johnson and junior David Nwabuisi enter the summer as the first-team linebackers, but there are quite a few sophomores and redshirt freshmen behind them. The coaches have tried to upgrade the athleticism at linebacker, a group that struggled for stretches last fall.

3. Kickin' it: Stefan Demos endured his ups and downs in Evanston, but he leaves as one of the more productive specialists in team history. Jeff Budzien and Steve Flaherty competed throughout the spring to replace Demos, and neither emerged as the clear-cut starter. Fitzgerald said the kicker race could continue up until game week. Special teams could finally be a strength for Northwestern in 2011, but it needs to be able to count on a kicker.
Given Bryce McNaul's injury history, Northwestern might feel a bit leery about relying too heavily on the linebacker this season. The senior has missed portions of the past three seasons with various ailments.

Then again, the Wildcats have no choice. After losing two starting linebackers (Nate Williams and Quentin Davie) who combined for 167 tackles, Northwestern needs big things from McNaul at an otherwise shaky position.

The team got some good news Monday when it resumed practice following spring break and McNaul was on the field, fully cleared for participation. McNaul had shoulder surgery Feb. 16 -- he had his AC joint removed -- and was supposed to be limited this spring. But he made a rapid recovery.

From NUsports.com's Skip Myslenski:
"It's kind of funny because the last shoulder surgery I had was around the same time after the Alamo Bowl back in '09," McNaul said. "That was an eight-month recovery and it was kind of all doom-and-gloom. So when they told me shoulder surgery, and especially when they said we're taking your AC joint out, I'm like, 'Oh, great. Here we go again.' But I came out of surgery and I kind of had a smile on my face because I felt great. It was a 45-minute operation and, like I said, they just cleaned it up. They didn't have to reconstruct or re-patch the whole thing. So it's all good. I just have a few more holes in the shoulder."

Although McNaul had been on schedule to return this fall either way, his participation in spring ball can only help the Wildcats linebacking corps. He started nine games last fall and will provide leadership for a group that needs some unproven players to emerge.
The spring superlatives series, which examines the strongest and weakest position groups for each Big Ten squad in spring ball, continues with Northwestern.

Strongest position: Wide receiver/tight end (superback)

  • Top returnees: Jeremy Ebert (62 receptions, 952 yards, 8 TDs); Drake Dunsmore (40 receptions, 381 yards, 5 TDs); Demetrius Fields (25 receptions, 291 yards, 2 TDs); Charles Brown (16 receptions, 198 yards); Rashad Lawrence (12 receptions, 178 yards)
  • Key losses: Sidney Stewart (40 receptions, 454 yards)
  • The skinny: New receivers coach Dennis Springer inherits the deepest position group on the roster. Ebert, a first-team All-Big Ten selection, headlines the receivers along with Dunsmore, who can be more productive than he was in 2010. Both players will be featured a lot this fall. The big upside with the group comes from three rising sophomores -- Lawrence, Tony Jones and Venric Mark -- all of whom saw the field as true freshmen last fall. All three players possess big-play potential, which Northwestern needs as it struggles to stretch the field at times.
Weakest position: Linebacker
  • Top returnees: Bryce McNaul (62 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble); David Nwabuisi (26 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble); Ben Johnson (21 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 1 fumble recovery)
  • Key losses: Nate Williams (96 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 3 quarterback hurries, 1 forced fumble; Quentin Davie (71 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 3 interceptions, 6 quarterback hurries, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery)
  • The skinny: A group pegged to be the strength of the defense struggled to meet expectations in 2010. Northwestern got steamrolled in losses to Illinois, Wisconsin and Texas Tech, and in the second halves of defeats against both Penn State and Michigan State. Two productive starters depart and there are questions about who can fill the gaps. McNaul boasts talent and leadership ability but has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career. Northwestern needs more from both Nwabuisi and Johnson and a surprising surge from a guy like Roderick Goodlow this fall. The kicker spot also is a concern after the departure of four-year starter Stefan Demos.
Pat Fitzgerald is ready for spring ball, for a fresh start to a new season, for a chance to look ahead.

But when Northwestern hits the practice field Monday for the first of 15 spring workouts, Fitzgerald might remind the players about their most recent performances. Needless to say, no one was pleased with the way the Wildcats wrapped up the 2010 season.

"The way we finished was completely and totally unacceptable, and that’s on all of us," Fitzgerald told ESPN.com on Monday. "If we’re going to fix it, we have to be the catalysts to do that."

Northwestern dropped its final three games by a combined score of 163-88. Quarterback Dan Persa missed the closing stretch after rupturing his Achilles' tendon in a Nov. 13 win against Iowa. Persa's injury seemed to rattle the Wildcats, who also were banged up on defense.

Was there an explanation for the late collapse?

"Nothing other than excuses," Fitzgerald said. "We’ve got to play better, we’ve got to coach better, we’ve got to play with a better attitude. We play team football here and we didn’t do a very good job of that. When we turned it over, we didn’t get off the field. When we did go down and score, we didn’t get a big stop we needed. And when we got a big stop, maybe we went three-and-out.

"We've got to pick each other up."

You always hear about competition in spring ball, but Northwestern's poor finish underscores the need to open up pretty much every job.

Fitzgerald notes the Wildcats' two-deep is loaded with players who have logged ample time in games. Several projected starters will miss part of all of spring ball -- Persa, linebacker Bryce McNaul, defensive tackle Jack DiNardo, guard Doug Bartels -- so there's opportunities everywhere.

A few positions to watch:
  • Defensive back: Northwestern needs a second starter to join Jordan Mabin, not to mention some safety help. Jeravin Matthews, a special teams standout who has struggled to find a permanent position, will compete for time at cornerback. "He’s always been spectacular in the kicking game for us, and he sees an opportunity," Fitzgerald said.
  • Running back: Mike Trumpy is expected to participate in all of spring ball after missing the final two games of last season with a fractured wrist. He'll wear a cast on the wrist for the spring and compete alongside rising sophomore Adonis Smith.
  • Linebacker: The Wildcats must replace two starters and the third, McNaul, will miss the spring following offseason surgery. Hopes are high for Roderick Goodlow, who missed all of last season with a knee injury but has been going through winter workouts. Goodlow was one of just three true freshmen to see the field in 2009. "It’s a heck of a free-agent pickup," Fitzgerald said.
  • Backup quarterback: With Persa limited, the coaching staff will turn its attention to Evan Watkins, Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian as they compete for the backup job this spring. Watkins boasts the most experience but Colter provided a spark in the bowl game.

Northwestern wraps up spring ball April 16 with its spring game.

Northwestern Wildcats season recap

December, 7, 2010
12/07/10
9:00
AM ET
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.

Big Ten lunch links

November, 3, 2010
11/03/10
12:00
PM ET
Don't forget to chat with me today at noon ET.

We can lament the fact that Jimmy McMillan of the Rent Is Too Damn High Party didn't win New York's governor race.

Big Ten lunch links

November, 2, 2010
11/02/10
12:00
PM ET
Fear the beard.

And follow me on Twitter throughout the Big Ten coaches' teleconference, which kicks off right now.

Big Ten lunch links

September, 30, 2010
9/30/10
12:00
PM ET
Look who needs me now? Mr. hot dog fingers can't press 'print' without hitting three extra keys. Yeah, in my house now, Jay! Technically we'll be in his house, but we'll be in my area of his house.

SPONSORED HEADLINES