For a second year in a row, the Northwestern Wildcats' season abruptly ended in disappointment. It left a bitter taste in the mouths of many fans, and left them ruing the deficiencies of the team and the program. But that doesn't mean there weren't a few positive takeaways from another straight losing season. Here are five that stand out.
Jackson was the shining light of Northwestern's season. Whether we were reacting to victory or defeat, we were constantly writing something to the effect of, "Justin Jackson is really good." Because in all but one game (the 10-9 loss to Michigan), he was just that.
Despite only carrying the ball a combined 20 times in Northwestern's first two games, Jackson finished his rookie campaign with 1388 total yards and 11 total touchdowns. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry, and 5.2 yards per touch. And in games where he was handed the rock 20-plus times, he never failed to eclipse 100 total yards.
Not many true freshmen have played under Pat Fitzgerald. Even fewer have started. None have starred like Jackson did in 2014. And it wasn't just the physical tools that wowed NU fans. It wasn't just the quickness, the agility, the slipperiness, the vision. Jackson also seems to be mature beyond his years, and all signs point to him having a great future at Northwestern.
NU's defensive front had some bright moments, and it had some not so bright ones in 2014. But the general feeling has to be positive, especially given how many of this year's contributors will be returning next year.
At tackle, C.J. Robbins and Greg Kuhar emerged as solid interior linemen, and both of them, along with Connor Mahoney, will be back in 2015. Throw in Sean McEvily, who missed this year with a foot injury but has been granted a sixth year of eligibility, and Northwestern should once again be strong up the middle.
On the edge, despite a sometimes perplexing or even infuriating rotation that often left NU's best pass rushers on the sidelines, there were encouraging signs too. Ifeadi Odenigbo and Xavier Washington, both underclassmen, flashed potential, and Deonte Gibson and Dean Lowry were constant menaces as well. The entire defensive end rotation returns next year, so rushing the passer should be one of the team's main strengths.
Potential in the Secondary
Northwestern's secondary was repeatedly struck by injuries this season, but that gave younger players a chance to exhibit their talent. And the early verdicts on many of those players are positive.
Godwin Igweguike especially stood out. He announced himself to the casual fan with a three-interception game against Wisconsin, and while he was by no means perfect the rest of the way, he showed plenty of potential. Marcus McShepard and Kyle Queiro also saw the field more, and seem to have the physical tools to contribute next season.
It's also easy to forget that Matt Harris is only a true sophomore, and is still developing. Traveon Henry and Nick VanHoose will be back next year too. Add Parrker Westphal to the mix, plus Keith Watkins who'll be returning from injury, and this will be a very deep unit in 2015.
Memories from Notre Dame
While the season was ultimately a failure, the Wildcats did deliver one win that will live on eternally in the minds of fans, especially those in attendance on the day. The win at Notre Dame was special, and the fact that it was fluky shouldn't detract from the fond memories it created. In fact, all the preposterous circumstances that allowed NU to force overtime and eventually pull out a win probably accentuate the upset.
The Big Ten is down
The Big Ten turned out to be better than many thought it would be back in September and early October, but nonetheless, there are no dominant teams. That's especially the case in the Big Ten West. Wisconsin eventually emerged this season, but the Badgers have (and usually have had) their flaws. Minnesota had success this year, but is anything but a sure thing moving forward. Nebraska just fired its coach. And Iowa seems to be trending downwards.
Obviously Northwestern isn't in a better place right now than any of those four programs. But if Pat Fitzgerald can get things turned around, the West is open to any and all potential contenders at the moment. This would be a perfect time for NU to sneak into the upper half of the division on a consistent basis, and every once in a while push for a trip to Indy.