After starting 7-3, including a comeback win over No. 13 Iowa, the Wildcats crippled due to the loss of All-Big Ten quarterback Dan Persa, suffering blowout losses to Wisconsin and Illinois and losing the TicketCity Bowl to Texas Tech.
The offense was expected to struggle, but it was the defense that underperformed the most.
"It was rough, it really was," senior cornerback Jordan Mabin said. "I think we let things out of our control affect our play. With Danny going down, that kind of affected our mental a little bit and we let it affect us a little more than is should have.
"I remember going back after watching the Wisconsin game and the Illinois game, and we would be messing up and doing plays to ourselves, messing up ourselves, and it was sad."
With an offseason to look back on late-season mishaps, coach Pat Fitzgerald says it's time to start looking forward and preparing for what looks to be a promising 2011 season.
"The final three games are over, so we're not talking about that anymore," Fitzgerald said. "We're not very pleased with the way we've finished either. We've moved on from it, but it's still, when you get your tail whipped, you remember who whipped your tail. And those memories, they stick with you as motivation if you use it the right way."
For Mabin, those games have served as motivation for the upcoming season, and he has seen improvements from himself and the rest of the team.
"They were talking about us pretty bad last year, toward the end of the year, and that gave us fuel…for the offseason," he said. "Since I've been here, this has probably been the best offseason we've had as a team."
In his final offseason as a Wildcat, Mabin has stepped up as a leader for Northwestern, and his classmates have as well.
"I know, after the season ended and we lost the bowl game last year, we were pretty down, and Coach Fitz challenged our class, our junior class at the time, saying if we want to go where we want to go, then this class is going to have to step up," he said. "So knowing that, we took it upon ourselves to put ourselves in leadership roles, do what we have to do in the offseason.
"Now, just knowing we've got a big senior class, the guys we have back, and just knowing we don't want [a late-season slide] to happen again, and knowing that it won't happen again, that just drives us."
Fitzgerald is also excited about the experience of this team, which, with 21 seniors, has the largest senior class of any Northwestern team during his tenure. It's also the most decorated senior class since he took over.
There's a quiet confidence about this team, which for Fitzgerald, is a welcome change from the disheartened squad that he ended with last season.
This year, the talent and experience are there for Northwestern to make a run at a championship in the new-look Big Ten, and Fitzgerald is challenging his players to players to put it all together, go out on top and grab that bowl win that had eluded the Wildcats since 1949.
"Sometimes when you get to the end of your career there's kind of that light at the end of the tunnel feeling and maybe I didn't do that right in the past, but this is my year because this is the last chance I might ever have to play football again, and if I don't do it now, I'm going to have that pain of regret."
Mabin knows that this is his last chance for a championship at the college level, and he's anxious to start the season in a tough road opener against Boston College. He has embraced his coach's challenge, as well.
"Now, the next thing to do is to win a bowl game and hopefully win the Big Ten Championship," he said. That's why we came here and that's definitely our goal for this season."