Yesterday's late touchdown play versus Iowa gave Northwestern both something to cheer and jeer about. As Demetrius Fields hauled in a 20-yard touchdown pass from Dan Persa with 1:22 left, the Ryan Field crowd errupted. But that would quickly be followed by a hush as quarterback Dan Persa was down on the field.
Persa, a junior QB who emerged on the scene in 2010, has led the Wildcats on all offensive phases. He leads the team with over 500 yards rushing and nine TD runs. He has thrown for over 2500 yards and 15 scores.
But as he laid on the field Saturday afternoon in apparent pain, had the Northwestern season gone down with him?
The answer will be given when Northwestern faces Illinois at Wrigley Field this Saturday when Evan Watkins takes over for Persa. The apparent lower leg injury was a ruptured achilles.
So how to replace a guy that was on track to go for nearly 4000 all-purpose yards, and perhaps break Darrell Beville's Big Ten record for passing efficiency?
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the game that Watkins is "a Chicago guy, getting his first start at Wrigley Field. Could you ask for a better script?"
In a fairytale, no. But in the real world Illinois is a very formidable opponent and is desperate for a win after losing the last two.
The big question for the Cats is how they replace their threat that Persa leaves behind in the running game.
Watkins is considered more of a pro-style QB, but is very athletic for his size. Many diehard Northwestern fans remember people saying the same of Gavin Hoffman during the end of the Gary Barnett era, and look how that turned out.
Simply put, the Wildcat coaches are going to have to tweak an offensive system that was seemingly built around the athleticism and decision making of Dan Persa.
Mike Trumpy and the offensive line will have to get something better going than just the 50 or so yards a game he averages. The wide receivers, minus Jeremy Ebert, are going to have to grow up and find ways to make big plays. Ebert has been the best, and most consistent, player outside of Persa this season.
Another key to look at is maybe who is behind Watkins. True freshman Kain Colter was not recruited by anybody as a QB, except for Northwestern.
He missed most of his senior season with a shoulder injury, but helped lead his high school squad to the Colorado 5a state championship as he threw for over 1700 yards and ran for nearly a thousand.
So perhaps the Wildcats get Colter his first NCAA action against Illinois.
There is one thing that is certain for Northwestern though, Dan Persa cannot be replaced. But he will return again for his senior season next year, and the Wildcats will go bowling for a historic third time in a row.
It is now just a question of if they have a QB that will be able to lead them to their first bowl win in over 60 years?