Good Cat, Bad Cat seemed an irrelevant feature after the regular season finale. Northwestern exceeded expectations this year in every department. Despite several close losses, the Wildcats finished with an impressive 9-3 record and will likely head to a prestigious New Year’s Day Bowl.
If anything, the greatest arguments surrounding this team revolved around its top players. With superb talent on both sides of the ball, many could be in the running for most valuable player on NU. Here are my picks for the top five MVPs, which are of course open for debate.
5) Tyler Scott, junior defensive lineman
Line play might never be the greatest strength for NU. The Cats’ statistics in terms of tackles for losses and sacks were not among the best in the nation. This line had its moments, though, and many centered on Tyler Scott. The junior earned his All-Big Ten honorable mention with bursts of brilliance – especially in pass rush.
Scott ranked second on the team with 9.5 tackles for loss and fourth in the conference with seven sacks. That even carried over to his playmaking ability. He forced three fumbles, which also led the team, and broke up five passes. There is little doubt Scott is a force to be reckoned with. When senior Brian Arnfelt leaves this offseason, Scott will be counted on even more next season.
4) David Nwabuisi, senior linebacker
The problem was that every linebacker made a case for being named as a most valuable player. Chi Chi Ariguzo likely won the team games earlier in the season, as he made plays all over the field. Damien Proby is a solid presence up the middle, and excels in stopping both the run and the pass.
But let’s give recognition to the senior Nwabuisi, who came on incredibly strong at the end of the season. After a few quiet midseason performances, Nwabuisi had a memorable close. He had the first interception return touchdown of his career, and paced the team with three picks. He was second on the team with 91 tackles, including a shocking 18 total stops in the 28-17 win against Iowa. In the most important games of his career, Nwabuisi stepped up to the task. It was a pleasure to watch his development as a player.
3) Kain Colter, junior quarterback
Much of this season will be about what did not happen. Disillusioned fans might wish that Pat Fitzgerald leaned more heavily on Kain Colter against Penn State and Nebraska. It is a fair complaint, but keep in mind that Trevor Siemian fared admirably in difficult circumstances.
The confusion over Colter’s role only spoke to his great ability. He had one of the great games in team NU history against Indiana. Although he threw just two passes, he ran for 161 yards and four touchdowns, then for good measure added nine catches for 131 yards. Many still question his throwing skills – maybe even some members of the coaching staff do – but Colter completed 69 percent of his passes this season. Oh, and he tossed eight touchdowns compared to just two interceptions. The sky is the limit for a junior looking to lead his team to national fame next season.
2.) Ibraheim Campbell, sophomore safety
Campbell broke onto the scene with a two-interception outing against Denard Robinson last season. Since then, he has yet to look back. It is hard to believe that two years ago, he was stranded on the sidelines. In a secondary with more questions than answers, Campbell is a much-needed leadership presence and an excellent player to boot.
He was barely noticeable the first few games of the season. It almost seemed as though a midgame injury against Indiana revived his season. Campbell went on to dominate at Penn State, with 14 tackles. He kept up the pace, and after a slight step back against Michigan, had one of his career best games at Michigan State.
I was also impressed by his work alongside Jared Carpenter. It was easy to see Carpenter’s improvement throughout the season. The senior did not see consistent playing time at any prior point in his career. But he and Campbell worked well behind an inconsistent group of corners. A strong competitor and remarkable talent, Campbell has two more years to improve his game even more.
1.) Venric Mark, junior running back
If you had told me before the season that a Northwestern running back would earn second team All-Big Ten honors, I would have had two questions. First, who? Second, are you insane? But Mark almost singlehandedly revitalized the NU rushing attack from the very beginning. He jumped onto the scene at Syracuse, doing most of his work outside the tackles. Then he continued to develop his game.
Against Vanderbilt, he took on a heavy workload and gained 123 yards. He upped the workload against Indiana, with 29 carries for 139 yards. The final numbers tell the story of his incredible season. Despite fighting through injuries, Mark gained 1310 yards – 6.2 per carry – and added 11 touchdowns. It was easy to forget by the end of the season that NU was concerned about its run game before 2012. Fitzgerald could only laugh that he and his staff failed in projecting Mark's potential impact. He had an exceptional junior season, and in a successful year, stood out as the team’s most valuable player.