Grading The 'Cats

Northwestern held on to beat Boston College, 24-17. writer Kevin Trahan grades out the Wildcats' performance in the win.

In a game that was pitched as a toss-up due to so many unknowns for Northwestern, the Wildcats provided plenty of answers en route to a 24-17 win against Boston College.

Despite having star quarterback Dan Persa watch the games from the sidelines, the NU offense proved itself against an ACC opponent on the road and the defense was much improved from the end of 2010.

Check out how the ‘Cats graded out in their first game of the season.

Quarterbacks: B+

Considering the circumstances, Kain Colter probably deserves an A, but if he's being graded on the same scale as Dan Persa would, he's just a bit below.

There were a few miscues, such as an ill-advised shovel pass and a bad interception, but that's typical of a young quarterback, and he ultimately led Northwestern to a win.

What impressed me the most about Colter was his command of the offense.

Last year he struggled to run NU's complex system, but at times today he ran the offensive scheme to perfection—perhaps as well as Persa at times.

To make things clear, there will be no quarterback controversy when Persa is cleared from injury, but this offense will be fine with Colter at the helm until he gets back.

Running Backs: B+

Running back was a key area of concern for Northwestern coming into this game, and it got even more concerning when Pat Fitzgerald seemed to say that neither Adonis Smith nor Mike Trumpy had improved much during camp.

However, while neither was dominant, both were solid and kept the pressure off Colter.

Trumpy led the team in rushing with 85 yards and a touchdown and Smith added 53 yards and a score.

Neither one will be among the Big Ten leaders in rushing, but if they can continue to provide relief for the quarterback—whoever that may be—then the Wildcats' offense will be much better off than it was last season.

Receivers: B

No receiver had a stellar day, which was due in part because NU had just 197 passing yards, but they were adequate and didn't have too many big drops.

Jeremy Ebert led the team with 54 yards and freshman Christian Jones added 39, including a big play that led to a touchdown later in the drive.

Wide receiver should be a strength for the Wildcats this season, and when Persa comes back, or when the coaches give Colter more chances to throw, production at receiver should increase.

Offensive Line: A

This is Pat Fitzgerald's most experienced offensive line yet and the group proved today that it belongs in the conversation as one of the best in the Big Ten.

The goal was simple—protect Colter—and the unit performed to perfection.

Colter was given plenty of time to throw, which is part of the reason for his improved decision-making from last season.

The line was also solid in the running game and turned in a complete performance, which will be very important as Colter and the young running backs continue to develop.

Defensive Line: A+

After an embarrassing end to the 2010 season that saw the Northwestern defense give up 330 rushing yards to Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure, the Wildcats' defensive line is by far the most improved unit in 2011.

Boston College rushed for only 104 yards, and 69 of them came on the first play from scrimmage.

The NU defensive line manhandled the Golden Eagles' offensive line and quarterback Chase Rettig was constantly under pressure.

The unit has veteran leadership and young talent and if it can replicate today's performance the rest of the year, it will be among the best in the conference.

Linebackers: A

Linebacker was supposed to be the biggest question mark for the Northwestern defense, with movement around the depth chart up until game week.

However, the unit was a pleasant surprise, especially in run defense, and it executed blitzes to perfection, pressuring Rettig all day.

Veteran Bryce McNaul was a force in the BC backfield and was all over the field, showing why he's the leader of the unit.

Expect the Wildcats' "no name" linebackers to become household names—at least in Evanston—very quickly.

Secondary: B-

Coming into the season, the secondary was supposed to be the strength of the defense.

Cornerback Jordan Mabin and safety Brian Peters are both All-Big Ten caliber players, and Jeravin Matthews was expected to step up as well.

There were bright spots, such as Mabin's interception, but it was a very inconsistent performance for the unit dubbed as the defense's strength.

Most of Boston College's yards came off of big plays, such as the 69-yard run in the first play from scrimmage, and a number of deep completions on third-and-long.

NU could get away with a subpar performance against Rettig, but it can't afford this type of performance against the top Big Ten quarterbacks.

Special Teams: A

I wrote before the game that Boston College would get the win in part because of its consistency on special teams.

It turned out to be the opposite.

Typically accurate kicker Nate Freese was one-for-three on field goal attempts for the Golden Eagles, while Northwestern placekicker Jeff Budzien nailed a 43-yarder, his first as the Wildcats' kicker.

Kick coverage was good and Venric Mark was solid on kick returns as well, as the Wildcats turned in a spotless special teams performance.

Coaching: A-

There were only two calls that prevented Pat Fitzgerald and his coaching staff from receiving a sold A, and both came on fourth down.

Fitzgerald is a gambler, so it was no surprise that he decided to go for it deep in Boston College territory, as opposed to taking the points and a likely 6-3 lead. However, the play call—a Colter run up the middle of a stacked box—was less than stellar.

Later on, as Northwestern tried to put the game away on fourth down, Colter failed to convert running outside, which had skeptics asking why Fitzgerald didn't call a run up the middle.

Fair or not, the coach is always going to be questioned if his team fails to convert on fourth down.

Besides those two plays, though, Fitzgerald lived up to his reputation as one of the best in the business.

He brought the intensity that NU fans and players have come to know and love, and more importantly he stood behind his quarterback when most in the media—and some fans—questioned Colter's abilities.

The offensive play-calling fit Colter's capabilities perfectly, allowing him to run the gameplan, but making sure he didn't have the same type of pressure on his shoulders that Persa had last year.

The defensive gameplan was solid as well, as the Wildcats kept constant pressure on Rettig.

It was a solid coaching performance, and Northwestern fans have come to expect nothing less.

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