Northwestern's thrilling 33-31 win over Wisconsin on Saturday marked the end of the regular season, so it's time for WildcatReport to hand out the hardware for its 2009 awards.
The envelope, please....
Most Valuable Player: Mike Kafka
The selection of Kafka as Northwestern's MVP has all the drama of a 1970s-era Soviet Union election. There really wasn't another viable candidate, as Kafka did everything but choreograph the marching band's halftime show for NU.
The big question on everyone's mind to start the season was whether Kafka was a good enough passer to lead Northwestern's offense. That seems like a laughable concern after Kafka led the Big Ten in completion percentage (65.7 percent) and finished second in total offense (263.6 yards per game) and third in passing (241.5). His 2,898 yards through the air places him third on Northwestern's all-time, single-season list, as does his 272 completions.
If there is any justice, Kafka will be named the first-team All-Big Ten quarterback on Monday. He should also get consideration for the Silver Football Award as the league MVP, as coach Pat Fitzgerald suggested after Kafka threw for 326 yards and two TDs to lead NU to a 33-31 win over Wisconsin, the Wildcats' third straight to close the season.
No player meant more to his offense than Kafka. Take a look at Northwestern's game against Penn State as Exhibit A: with Kafka in the lineup, Northwestern held a 10-3 second-quarter lead and the Nittany Lion defense was on its heels. After he went down with a hamstring strain in the second quarter, Penn State outscored NU 31-3 the rest of the way, prompting Joe Paterno to quip that his halftime adjustments consisted of Kafka getting hurt.
Kafka didn't have a 1,000-yard rusher to rely on this season -- heck, he didn't have a 100-yard rusher in any single game -- as Northwestern fans found out that "running back-by-committee" is an approach used when a team doesn't really have a running back. Kafka was NU's biggest running threat and leading ground gainer.
Kafka made his share of mistakes -- his seven interceptions included one in the closing minute against Syracuse that the Orange turned into the winning score -- but that will happen when you are single-handedly carrying your offense. Plus, the fifth-year senior got better as the year went on, ending the season with a streak of 116 throws over his last four games without an interception.
Comeback Player of the Year: Corey Wootton
It may seem strange to award a Comeback Player Award to a guy that played last season, but Wootton earned this accolade for courageously playing with an injury all year long.
Wootton started the opener against Towson less than nine months after major reconstructive knee surgery repaired the torn ACL, MCL and meniscus he suffered in the Alamo Bowl last Dec. 30. Everyone knew he was playing at less than 100 percent, but he never used at as an excuse, even after he registered just eight tackles through the first seven games.
Wootton kept getting better as the season wore on and the knee continued to heal. It's no coincidence that he recorded all four of his sacks over the last five weeks of the season, once he started to regain some of his trademark explosion off the ball.
He finished the year with just 20 tackles, 6 TFL and 4 sacks -- significantly lower than the 42, 16, and 10 numbers he posted in those categories last season. But one of those sacks was the biggest tackle of the season -- the end zone hit that knocked Iowa's Ricky Stanzi out of the game and caused a fumble that Marshall Thomas recovered for a touchdown in the Wildcats' 17-10 shocker over the then-No. 4 BCS team in the country.
Breakout Player of the Year: Zeke Markshausen
Markhausen's story seems to have been lifted from one of those Disney feel-good sports movies. Change the Philadelphia Eagles' green uniforms to Northwestern's purple ones, and you can just about envision Mark Wahlberg playing Markshausen in Invincible II.
Let's review the made-for-the-big-screen backstory. The guy is a former walk-on. He transferred to NU from Division III Wisconsin-Platteville. He comes from a small town called Capron, Ill. And he had one career catch coming into 2009.
So what does he do as a fifth-year senior? Finish with a team-leading 79 catches -- second-most in the Big Ten -- for 774 yards and three touchdowns.
Cue the soundtrack.
Rookie of the Year: Demetrius Fields
No one paid much attention to the redshirt freshman from Dallas coming into the 2009 season, but Fields carved out a nice niche for himself in the Wildcats' receiver corps as a physical possession receiver.
Fields wound up with 23 catches for 199 yards and a touchdown on the year. His best game was against Syracuse, where he caught five passes for 39 yards and a 3-yard touchdown. He also had four-catch games against Eastern Michigan (25 yards) and Minnesota (43).
The future looks very bright for Fields, who already knows how to use his stoutly built 6-foot, 205-pound body to make some space for himself in the secondary.