Northwestern Football: Persa's Absence Affects More Than Wildcats' Offense
During preparations for Tuesday's Insight Bowl against Missouri, Iowa defensive players were asked to name the best quarterback they faced this year.
Surprisingly, it wasn't Ohio State star Terrelle Pryor, midseason Heisman favorite Denard Robinson, or the nation's fourth-rated passer, Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien.
"Dan Persa," cornerback Micah Hyde told the Cedar Rapids Gazette.
Consensus All-American defensive end Adrian Clayborn agreed, "I'd definitely say Persa. We couldn't stop him."
“Dan Persa,” cornerback Shaun Prater said. “He was a very aggressive quarterback, breaking arm-tackles all day."
And not to beat a dead horse, linebacker Jeremiah Hunter added, "Definitely Northwestern’s guy. Oh man. He did everything. He ran, he passed. He was hard to tackle. He was a freak, man. I’m not taking anything away from Pryor. But Persa, man, he knows what he can do and just does it.”
The Big Ten coaches and media apparently agreed with the Iowa players' praise, voting Persa first and second team All-Big Ten, respectively.
His numbers certainly back up his attention and awards.
In ten games this season, Persa threw for 2,581 yards and ran for 519 more, finishing as the team's second leading rusher. He threw 15 touchdowns, while only accumulating four interceptions, and his 73.5-percent completion percentage ranks second in the nation.
Who is the Big Ten's best quarterback
More impressive than his numbers and honors, however, is that he received them after playing in only 10 games this season.
Persa's season ended after he ruptured his achilles on Northwestern's final offensive possession against Iowa, capping a 14-point fourth quarter comeback that gave the Wildcats a 21-17 win.
Ironically, Northwestern's season was ruined on its biggest win of the year.
Persa was replaced at quarterback by freshman Evan Watkins, who struggled in the season's final two games. He completed 20 percent fewer of his passes than Persa and threw just one touchdown, compared to four interceptions. He also didn't provide the dual-threat capabilities that Persa could on every play.
Not surprisingly, Northwestern's offense struggled in the next two games, leading to losses against Illinois and Wisconsin.
However, it was the defense, not the offense, that ultimately ruined NU's chances for victory in those two games.
The Wildcat defense struggled mightily against the run in a 48-27 loss to Illinois, yielding 330 yards on the ground to Illini running back Mikel Leshoure. A week later, the defense was even more abysmal in a 70-23 loss to Wisconsin.
The inexperience at quarterback undoubtedly put the defense in bad positions, as freshmen Watkins and Kain Colter accounted for six turnovers in the loss to Wisconsin.
"They're freshmen—a true freshman and a redshirt freshman—out there making some mistakes," coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
"Turnovers killed us," Watkins added. "I have to make better decisions."
The offense was expected to struggle after Persa went down and the defense needed to step up and pick up the offense's slack.
Instead, the defense placed the weight of the team on two freshmen quarterbacks. That can't be how Northwestern plays if it wants to stay close to Texas Tech in the TicketCity Bowl.
However, the last two games might have shown the "real" Northwestern defense of 2010, a defense that couldn't produce when it was forced to win the game, not just manage it.
But the defense's struggles over the past two games reflect more on Persa's abilities than its own.
Not only was Persa the offense's leader, but he was also a do-everything player who bailed out an inexperienced defense.
His ability to run helped move the clock and he was able to maintain long drives, giving the defense long rests in between possessions. His offense rarely went three-and-out, and because he rarely threw interceptions, opposing offenses rarely started with good field position. Not to mention his energy and competitive fire that he brought with him to every snap.
Persa's presence made everyone around him better. And because of his absence, Northwestern's weaknesses and inexperience on defense are beginning to show.
For much of the year, a defense that lost many talented players from 2009 overachieved, as so many Northwestern squads do. However, the two blowouts that ended the 2010 regular season proved that it was in fact Persa who overachieved throughout the year.
At 7-5, Northwestern limps into the New Year's Day Ticket City Bowl against Texas Tech. And if the Wildcats want any chance to win that game, the defense will have to step up without the help of its do-everything quarterback.
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