The regular season ended on a high note for Northwestern. Not only did the Wildcats regain control of the Land of Lincoln rivalry, they did so by obliterating Ilinois in every facet of the game. That momentum should carry over into bowl season – wherever Northwestern should end up. In the meantime, we’re wrapping up the regular season by handing out a few awards. Some perceptions may change based on what happens in the Wildcats’ bowl game, but that’s a long way off, and we’d like to share our thought while they’re still fresh.
Chris: Venric Mark
There’s a strong argument to be made for Colter in this spot, and I tossed the idea around for quite a bit before finally settling on Mark. In the end, I chose Mark because of what he means within the strategic focus of Northwestern’s offensive attack. Over the course of the season, the Wildcats morphed into a run-first team, and that identity development would have never taken root without Mark’s meteoric rise. From kick returner to 1,300-yd rusher, Mark evolved into a bona fide star and an indispensable cog in Northwestern’s offense. Without Mark, the option sets that confounded so many defenses would have fallen flat.
Kevin: Kain Colter
Venric Mark is certainly deserving of this spot, but without Colter, this offense can't function as smoothly as it did this year. He's an unbelievable playmaker with an underrated arm, and while he didn't throw a lot of passes, he made plays, and that's all that matters. For the first time since the Tyrell Sutton years, the Northwestern running back out-rushed the quarterback by a wide margin, but the numbers don't tell the whole story. Colter mastered the option and the zone read, getting the ball to Mark in the right situations and keeping it when he was in the best position to make a play. He made the Northwestern offense one of the most dynamic offenses in the Big Ten, and to use an old cliche, he "did a lot of things that don't show up on the stat sheet."
Chris: Ibraheim Campbell
Monday’s release of the All-Big Ten teams and individual awards brought a level of validation to the sentiment I’ve long endorsed about Northwestern’s 2012-13 defense. Without Campbell, the only returning starter from last season, the secondary falls apart. Not literally, of course, but it’s tough to quantify what Campbell meant not only as an anchor in the back end of the defense, but also the leadership he exhibited and mentorship he provided for young corners like Daniel Jones and Nick VanHoose. Campbell was the glue that kept the secondary – which, despite marginal improvements, was the worst unit on the defensive side of the ball – from spiraling into 2011-level dysfunction.
Kevin: Tyler Scott
I was debating between Ibraheim Campbell and Tyler Scott before eventually deciding on Scott. Campbell helped hold the inexperienced secondary together, but Scott did his share to help that unit, as well, by limiting other teams' passing games. He was fourth in the Big Ten with seven sacks and helped transform a defensive line that struggled mightily in 2011. Scott said numerous times during fall camp that the pass rush had to improve, and he acted on those words this season. The run defense was much improved, as well, and while a lot of that credit goes to the interior defensive line, Scott was certainly influential in stopping the run. He'll be one of the top returning defensive ends in the Big Ten next year and will lead a defensive line in 2013.
Most Improved Player
Chris: Venric Mark
This feels like the most obvious category on the board. Mark showed flashes in limited action at running back last season, but his greatest asset – or so we thought – was as a kick return specialist. Then he went out and rushed for 1,310 and 11 touchdowns at a 6.15-yards per carry clip and at one point, however early in the season, entered the Heisman discussion. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who predicted this kind of star-turn from a player who had always done his best work on special teams, and who many deemed too small to withstand the pounding of being a full-time running back. Mark certainly took a beating this season, but he sprang back up time and again and kept churning out more yards and touchdowns. By season’s end, Mark cemented his status as one of the Big Ten’s best offensive players.
Kevin: Venric Mark
There's really no contest here. Mark came out of nowhere to rush for over 1,300 yards and 11 touchdowns, just a year removed from being a return specialist that bounced around on the offense. Even in fall camp, I figured Mark could be an effective option back, but I didn't think he could run it up the middle, or even succeed in the zone read. He told me that his favorite play was running up the middle; I didn't believe him. However, he has proven the doubters and I wrong and was named second team All-Big Ten. As long as he stays healthy — the big hits he takes are concerning — Mark could be a first team All-Big Ten back in 2013.
Most Improved Unit
Chris: Defensive Line
The ascension began in the offseason. We saw flashes during the spring game. By the time the season rolled around, the defensive line proved its hard work this offseason had paid off in big ways. The standouts were Tyler Scott and Quentin Williams, the hand-clubbed defensive ends who combined for 10.5 sacks and applied relentless pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Another huge part of the line’s progression was the tackle position, where Brian Arnfelt, Sean McEvily, Will Hampton and Chance Carter won the line of scrimmage by generating a strong push at the point of attack. So many times last season, offensive lines would have their way up front with the Wildcats’ tackles. This year, Northwestern carried out the punishment. The best defenses in the country control the trenches with regularity. Thanks to an improved line, Northwestern was able to do as much this season.
Kevin: Offensive Line
The struggles of many of this team's units were well-documented last season, but it's unbelievable how little people talked about how bad the offensive line was. Last year, Northwestern was second-to-last in the Big Ten with 42 sacks allowed. This year, the Wildcats were second-best in the league with just 16 sacks allowed. Granted, there is still one more game to go, but that's an incredible 26-sack improvement from last year. There were issues at the beginning of the year, especially on the right side of the line, but the unit has improved as a whole and become much more consistent. Left tackle Pat Ward stepped up for his senior season, while Brian Mulroe was a second team All-Big Ten selection. Center Brandon Vitabile is underrated and right tackle Jack Konopka performed will in the first year as a starter. This Northwestern team has been praised for its run game, and a lot of that credit has to go to the offensive line.
Chris: Michigan State (23-20)
Coming off a demoralizing loss at Michigan, Northwestern went into Spartan Stadium and delivered one of its finest all-around efforts of the season. Michigan State was far less imposing than its preseason projections would lead you to believe, but given the circumstances surrounding the Wildcats’ previous disappointment, and the way they finally, mercilessly, managed to protect a fourth-quarter lead, beating Michigan State was a huge achievement. Vanderbilt is probably a better team than Michigan State, and I have no qualms with taking the Commodores here. It’s just that Northwestern needed to prove it could rebound from the latest in a long line of devastating late-game mishaps when it traveled to East Lansing. Even if Michigan State wasn’t all it was billed up to be, getting that win in a tough environment was a huge testament to this team’s toughness, both mental and physical.
Kevin: Michigan State (23-20)
For some reason, a lot of people are calling the Vanderbilt game Northwestern's best win because the Commodores are 8-4 and play in the SEC. To me, winning a home game against a team that beat nobody good on a weak schedule en route to 8-4 isn't overly impressive. Yes, Michigan State struggled to a 6-6 record this year, but the Spartans still had a very impressive defense, and NU scored more points on that defense than all but Indiana and Nebraska — more than Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin. Plus, it was a road game coming off a devastating loss to Michigan. NU proved it could respond to adversity and it proved it could hold onto a fourth quarter lead, and while the latter would have been beneficial earlier in the year, this win gave the Wildcats some late-season confidence.
Chris: Nebraska (29-28)
Like my last selection, you may be scratching your head over why I chose Nebraska, the frontrunner to represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl, as Northwestern’s worst loss. Here’s why: had the Wildcats escaped the Big Red Nation’s invasion (that gameday crowd felt like a home-field advantage…for Nebraska) of Ryan Field with a win, they would have had a decent shot to claim the Legends Division crown outright. A victory meant Northwestern would have had the head-to-head edge over the Huskers, and while some other contingencies may have fallen out of the Wildcats’ favor, they would have been a major factor in the Division race up until the end. If not for a sequence of dropped interceptions, or Jeff Budzien’s one missed field goal on the season (it was a 53-yarder; no shame in that), the Wildcats would have stepped into the drivers seat in the Legends. It was a huge missed opportunity, and a game Northwestern will be kicking itself for losing well into the offseason.
Kevin: Michigan (38-31 OT)
Of Northwestern's three losses, this is the one that the Wildcats really should have won, and the one they could argue they were the better team for. Penn State out-played NU, and Nebraska out-played the Wildcats aside from some turnovers that kept NU in the game. However, NU played just as well as Michigan for the entire game. That could have been a season-defining win for NU — to go into the Big House, beat up on a tough Michigan defense and come closer to a 10-win regular season. It was a heartbreaking way to lose a game, and that was the most devastated I have seen Pat Fitzgerald and the Northwestern players after a loss. NU really should have won that game, and it would have been a major victory, only to end in defeat.