The Wildcats were 7-3 and had a legitimate shot of reaching a second straight January bowl.
However, quarterback Dan Persa, the architect of the comeback, was nowhere to be found.
Persa ruptured his Achilles' tendon after throwing the go-ahead touchdown against the Hawkeyes late in the fourth quarter, ending his season, and in the process, ending Northwestern's as well.
After the Iowa game, NU suffered two embarrassing losses in a row, giving up 330 rushing yards to Illinois running back Mikel LeShoure in a 48-27 loss to the Illini, losing 70-23 to Wisconsin in Madison, and losing to Texas Tech in the TicketCity Bowl despite a valiant comeback.
Persa's absence was certainly felt on offense, as the Wildcat quarterbacks combined for six interceptions in the final three games. However, the defense is really what killed Northwestern down the stretch.
Persa was instrumental in the defense's success, sustaining long drives and always putting the opposing offense in bad field position. He made the defense look much better than it was, something Evan Watkins and Kain Colter couldn't do, and proved just how valuable he is to, not only the offense, but to Northwestern's entire squad.
With Persa, Northwestern can play with anyone. Without him, the Wildcats are a subpar Big Ten team.
The Big Ten coaches recognized his value, voting him first team All-Big Ten, despite his missing the final two games of the regular season.
We've always been taught the classic line that one person doesn't make a football team. However, Northwestern seems to defy the rule.
It's not so much that Persa is the only player on the field who performs well. But his presence certainly brings out the best in every other player on the field, even the NU defense.
Now that this season has come to a close, perhaps a bit earlier than the Wildcats had planned, the focus is on next year and the possibilities in a new Big Ten.
Northwestern will be a member of the Legends Division, and with Persa back for his senior season, a trip to Indianapolis for the inaugural Big Ten Championship game is certainly in the realm of possibility.
The offense will remain almost entirely intact and Persa will keep first team All-Big Ten receiver Jeremy Ebert. On defense, the secondary, arguably NU's weakest unit in 2010, will return three of four starters. And in a league that loses loads of talent in 2011, Northwestern will be reloading.
In short, Northwestern has a very legitimate shot at winning a Big Ten Championship in 2011.
The experience retuning and the favorable schedule definitely are pluses, but Dan Persa's presence is the main reason that the Wildcats are even in championship discussion. The Big Ten's most versatile quarterback will be back with a vengeance in 2011 faced with a daunting task; make this team championship good. But if 2010 was any indication, Dan Persa will be up to the challenge.