Northwestern, in one phrase: Well-rounded

It's the quiet contributions that spur Northwestern football.

When Jared Carpenter earned Most Valuable Player honors after the Gator Bowl victory, it seemed like a questionable decision.

Quentin Williams, or maybe Tyler Scott, looked like the obvious MVP candidates. They provided immediate statements for the bend-don't-break Wildcats when they needed one.

But can you blame whatever selection committee existed for ostensibly tuning out? Tyler Russell, one of the darling SEC quarterbacks, had no answer for the pass rush and kept chucking balls to the guys in purple.

Jokes and SEC bashing aside, I left Jacksonville and then spring practice with an unresolved long-term question: How do you judge value on this team?

In the wake of an impressive 10-3 season, you could easily make the case that NU's depth is what propels them to success. The top players, save for Venric Mark, might not jump out on the television screen. The NCAA 14 video game rankings are a little messed up, sure, but on this team it's tough to quantify. That's because the foundation involves so many contributions.

Again, how do we judge value?

In last year's season opener against Syracuse, Davion Fleming struggled in the second half. The defense collapsed, and moving forward to the second week, Pat Fitzgerald subbed in fifth-year senior Jared Carpenter.

No one really expected anything from the secondary after Ryan Nassib's field day. That unit needed an upgrade, and as the year progressed, Carpenter developed into an able starter. He demonstrated poise and big-play ability against Michigan, and then harnessed that midseason confidence before turning in an absolute gem against Michigan State.

Down 23-20 on Nov. 17, the Spartans tried to muster one final effort. Carpenter helped to will NU–fresh off that emotional loss in Ann Arbor–to a solid road victory. On fourth down, he pried the ball from the grasp of tight end Dion Sims to preserve an emotional win that spoke to the team's strength of character.

Right next to him, Ibraheim Campbell is good, and even dominant at his best. But winning games, as evidenced by Carpenter, goes beyond the clear-cut top players. It requires contributions from everyone on the field, with seasons often defined by those little plays. You never really know where they're coming from.

Then-redshirt freshman Nick VanHoose defined the concept of "stepping up," to put it bluntly. VanHoose was never quite shutdown level, but while other corners looked anxious and error-prone, he earned the recognition simply through filling needs.

We remember Mark and Colter and the consistent Siemian heroics and David Nwabuisi's 18 tackles. But what made NU were those surprise performances.

I remember when Mike Trumpy iced Boston College, dominating in the final minutes as the Wildcats stayed undefeated. I remember when Christian Jones made that 47-yard touchdown grab that left Iowa gasping for air. I remember when Dan Vitale latched onto his potential, keeping opposing secondaries off balance.

They buy into "team," because here, perhaps more than anywhere else in the conference, the "team" wins. The 2012 season provided the perfect miniature. In terms of players giving those extra efforts, Northwestern won the day.

To be honest, I arrived at this column because in the next week or so, I'll try to determine the 10 most valuable players on NU. People care about football. They care about their opinions and opportunities for interaction. We're tired of this seemingly endless offseason, so why not build anticipation?

But when we appreciate the elite talent on NU, that's not to forget the team dynamic. In one offseason, hype has run its entire cycle. At first, people expected Pasadena. Then, the cynics came to trash the optimistic Vegas lines and suggested something like 8-5.

There's one thing we probably can guess. If this team hopes to have another successful season, help will probably arrive from where we least expect it.

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