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QB Persa needs to be strong for Northwestern

BY SETH ROBERTS | AUGUST 24, 2011 7:20 AM

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It’s been nine months since the cold, rainy November day that Dan Persa ruptured his Achilles tendon.

Nine months of being peppered with questions about his health, his rehab, and how the long layoff will affect his once-electric playmaking.

Nine long, repetitive months — and he’s sick of it.

“My closer friends don’t ask me about it anymore, because they know I’m annoyed by it,” Persa said at Big Ten media days in Chicago last month. “I see kids who will say, ‘How’s the foot?’ And I’ll be like, ‘Good.’ That’s about the extent of the conversation.”

Considering all that rides on his shoulders, though, he shouldn’t be surprised by the amount of attention his ankle has received.

The slippery dual-threat gunslinger is a long shot candidate for the Heisman Trophy — Northwestern sent members of the media seven-pound dumbbells emblazoned with PersaStrong.com as part of its marketing strategy for Persa, who wears No. 7 — after he was named first-team All-Big Ten during his truncated 2010 season.

In 10 games, the native of Bethlehem, Pa., threw for 2,581 yards and rushed for 530 more. His 73.5 percent completion rate was the best in the country.

The Wildcats stumbled without him. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald used two freshmen under center in his team’s last three games, and he said the experience was “like putting hot sauce in your eyes.”

“The value in having a quarterback with experience [is immeasurable],” he said. “Going from having an All-Big Ten quarterback to two freshmen is why I’m gray at 36 [years old]. You can’t put a price tag on that.”

Northwestern lost all three games, including a 45-38 loss to Texas Tech in the TicketCity Bowl. Persa’s main replacement, Evan Watkins, completed 52 percent of his passes but also tossed five interceptions — one more than Persa had thrown in the previous 10 games. The young quarterback managed just 76 yards against a leaky Red Raider defense that was third-worst in the country in defending the pass, with 293.8 yards per game.

In other words, Fitzgerald is more than happy to have Persa back on the field.

“A guy like Danny is going to find a way to get it done,” the sixth-year coach said. “He’s going to will everybody, and everybody around him is going to play up to his level. The impact he can have with the offense is one thing but also with the team — no disrespect to the right guard, but his impact is just a little bit less [than Persa’s].”

That isn’t to say that Persa will be an immediate savior for a squad that went 3-5 in Big Ten play last season. After all, he doesn’t play defense — and the Wildcats finished in the bottom half of the league in defense after giving up 163 points in their last three games.

“Under our control, collectively as a program, we failed at the finish of the season,” Fitzgerald said.

“We recruited [our players] on the pretense … that we were going to win championships, and we haven’t gotten that done yet.”

The Wildcats can go a long way towards rectifying that failure if they can figure out a way to finish out games. The fourth quarter was particularly problematic last season — Northwestern conceded 95 points in the closing minutes of games. That mark was the fourth-worst in the conference.
The offense wasn’t much better. The team put up 69 points in fourth quarters, the third-worst number in the league.

Fitzgerald and company will benefit from having Persa back to lead an attack dominated by upperclassmen — six of the 11 starters are seniors, and three more are juniors — and an improved mentality could pay big dividends as well.

“We’ve been brainstorming ways in which we can get the offense together and get us going, and keep that momentum going,” offensive lineman Al Netter told Scout.com’s Jamie Arkin in July. “The second we walk in the locker room, we’re talking through what worked, what didn’t work, what we’re changing. It’s just got to be an attitude thing for us. Sometimes we may get a little too complacent, but we’re definitely coming with a different attitude this year.”

Follow DI Sports Editor Seth Roberts on Twitter.


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