After winning the Big Ten West, and finishing in the AP poll's top 10 for the first time ever in 2020, the Wildcats entered the 2021 college football season with high expectations. However, injuries and issues on both sides of the ball derailed those expectations as Northwestern went just 3-9 this season. Despite the Wildcats' struggles, there were some bright spots for NU this past season.
Offensive MVP: Evan Hull, RB
This sophomore from Minnesota, more often than not, was the only player who was able to move the ball consistently for Northwestern this season. He finished the regular season sixth in the Big Ten in rushing yards (1,009), fourth in rushing attempts (196), seventh in yards per attempt (5.1), and eighth in rushing touchdowns (7). He also was fourth among Big Ten running backs in receiving yards (264). His development was one of the few pleasant surprises in 2021.
Defensive MVP: Chris Bergin, LB
It's hard to say no to the guy who led the Big Ten in both solo (84) and total tackles (132). He also is third in the nation in the latter category entering the bowl season. Bergin gave this defense a fighting chance every week and was one of the leaders of this unit.
Best Freshman: Anthony Tyus III, RB
He was the Wildcats' third-leading rusher this year (210 yards) and should see more action in 2022. It was an impressive debut for a freshman whom 247Sports graded Northwestern's fifth-best recruit in the Class of 2021.
Best Play of the Season: Evan Hull's 90-yard touchdown run against Ohio
Hull's two first-quarter touchdowns would be all the scoring Northwestern needed against Ohio, but the second one was one for the record books. It was the longest run of Hull's career and the third-longest in program history.
Best Performance (Player): Evan Hull vs. Ohio
Against the Bobcats, Hull piled up 216 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries, including the 90-yard highlight run. Add that to his 220-yard, four-TD effort (on 24 carries) against UMass in 2019, and Hull can lay claim to two of the top 15 rushing performances in program history.
Best Performance (Team): vs. Ohio
Northwestern's 35-6 win over the Bobcats from the MAC on Sept. 25 was easily their biggest (margin-wise) of the season. The Wildcats posted a season-high 461 yards of offense, with 373 of that coming on the ground. They averaged 7.3 yards per carry on the 51 rushing attempts while attempting just 20 passes (completed 12 of them for 88 yards). Ohio finished with 348 yards of offense but didn't score until the last play of the game. NU's defense also forced three turnovers and recorded four sacks in the win.
Defining Moment: Win over Rutgers
Northwestern's only Big Ten victory of the season was a 21-7 home win over Rutgers on Oct. 16. The Scarlet Knights finished 5-7, just missing out on a bowl game, and can look back at this contest as a missed opportunity. Overall, the Wildcats were outscored on average 34-13 in Big Ten games, so the victory against Rutgers can't be overlooked entirely. NU's defense held the Scarlet Knights to just 222 yards, including only 63 on the ground.
Biggest Surprise: Blowout loss at Nebraska
Coming off of an impressive win against Ohio, Northwestern headed to Lincoln to face Nebraska. The Wildcats had played the Cornhuskers closely in recent history, splitting the last 10 meetings with seven of those decided by no more than a touchdown. This time, however, Northwestern left Memorial Stadium on the wrong end of a 56-7 beatdown, as Nebraska piled up 657 yards on the Wildcats, including 427 and seven touchdowns on the ground.
Biggest Disappointment: The entire season
The hope was that Northwestern would put up a strong defense of its division title. Instead, the Wildcats went 3-9 for the second time in three years, tying the worst record in Pat Fitzgerald's 16-year tenure. The struggles were punctuated by a season-ending loss to archrival Illinois, which ended the Wildcats' winning streak against the Fighting Illini at six in a row.
Senior Who Will Be Missed the Most: Andrew Marty, QB
This is more of a personal, sentimental pick. During the 2019 and '21 seasons, Marty took the reigns during NU's hardest offensive times. And he certainly made the most of his reps, as he did everything within his power, either with his arm or with his feet, to try and will this Wildcats team downfield. He put his body in harm's way with no questions asked in order to do that. So unless he gets another year of eligibility next year, he finishes his career in Evanston with 857 passing yards (60.6 completion rate), 326 rushing yards (4.8 ypc in 2020), and 13 total touchdowns.
Player to Watch in 2022: The next QB
With the exception of Peyton Ramsey in 2020, the quarterback position has been a revolving door since the days of Clayton Thorson. The Wildcats need to find that great signal-caller who can be a multi-year starter like Thorson was.
Offseason Storyline: Find that quarterback
If Fitzgerald can find stability under center again, the rest of the offense will fall into place. In 2019 and this season, both of which Northwestern finished 3-9, quarterback play was a black mark on the stat sheet. In 2019, four quarterbacks combined for six touchdowns and 15 interceptions. This season, four different signal-callers combined for 13 scores through the air and 14 picks. Not surprisingly, the Wildcats finished 123rd and 116th nationally in total offense in those two seasons while averaging 16.3 points per game in 2019 (tied for 116th) and 16.6 this fall (125th).
— Written by Gabe Salgado, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.