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Posted By Ben Chiswick On Jan 2 2011 @ 5:34 pm In Northwestern | 1 Comment

Well, it was a tough end to a tough year.

During the regular season, the Northwestern Wildcats rose as high as 7-3 with a signature win against a top-15 opponent. But the inability to hold big leads against Michigan State and Penn State followed by a season-ending injury to First Team All Big-Ten quarterback Dan Persa led to a relatively disappointing finish at 7-5 overall and just 3-5 – tied for 7th – in the Big Ten conference.

Still managing a spot in a New Year’s Day bowl, the coaching staff put the ‘Cats in a position to win despite falling behind early and playing without their best player. In the end, however, it was the same two weaknesses – a porous defense and an inability to throw the ball without Persa – that reared their ugly heads in a 45-38 loss to the Texas Tech Red Raiders in the inaugural TicketCity Bowl.

First and foremost, kudos have to go out to the Northwestern coaching staff for the adjustments they made during the month-plus break between the regular season finale and the bowl game. Left with two freshman quarterbacks following Persa’s injury, Evan Watkins was fairly ineffective in starting the last two weeks. Contrasting Watkins’ more traditional drop-back style was Kain Colter, a speedy athlete who was used sparingly on dual-threat running plays.

Taking advantage of the long layoff before the bowl game, head coach Pat Fitzgerald installed a new group of offensive plays designed to utilize Colter’s speed with a variety of option runs. When Watkins struggled early, Fitzgerald did not hesitate to shift to a Colter-led rushing attack the rest of the afternoon.

Both quarterbacks shuttled in and out of the game throughout, but when the emphasis turned to Colter’s running plays the offense saw much more success.

Colter was exceptional, rushing for 105 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries. He also caught a 32-yard pass and threw for another 38. The offense nearly overcame a 31-9 deficit in the second half and pulled to within one score in the fourth quarter on two separate occasions. Northwestern posted offensive season-highs with 38 points and 229 rushing yards, which speaks volumes for the coaching staff as well as for the individual talent of Colter.

At the end of the day, however, the inability of the defense to stop anybody prevented the opportunity for what could have been an exciting comeback. The Wildcats’ defensive weaknesses became glaring during the final two weeks of the season when they gave up a combined 848 rushing yards and 118 points in embarrassing losses to Illinois and Wisconsin.

Their struggles continued on New Year’s Day against Texas Tech’s potent spread offense. Quarterback Taylor Potts was shaky in the first quarter, but quickly found his groove and pretty much did whatever he wanted the rest of the afternoon. Potts was a ridiculous 43-for-56 through the air for 369 yards and four touchdowns, not to mention a 13-yard touchdown run on a double-pass trick play in the second quarter.

The Red Raiders offense totaled 552 yards to go along with their 45 points, eventually draining the clock in the fourth quarter and leaving the Wildcats with just 30 seconds to play and no timeouts remaining for their last-gasp possession.

And so Northwestern remains winless in bowl games since 1949, having now dropped eight in a row since 1996. But optimism still abounds in Evanston, as Fitzgerald’s program remains on the rise and knocking on the door of bigger and better things.

More on that in a couple days…

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