Trailing the University of Iowa Hawkeyes 17-14 with 4:08 remaining in the game, the Northwestern University Wildcats had the ball on their 9-yard line and needed a touchdown to take the lead. Junior quarterback Dan Persa marched the Wildcats down the field with an array of runs and passes.
After the Wildcats were able to get to the Hawkeyes 20-yard line, Persa got the signals from the sidelines for the next play. He hiked the ball, looked for an open receiver and had two Iowa defenders in his face. Persa released the ball, throwing it near the left side of the end zone to wide receiver Demetrius Fields, who hauled in the catch for the go-ahead touchdown.
The crowd of 47,130 at Ryan Field erupted in a loud cheer as the Wildcats came back to lead the game with 1:22 remaining. The players began celebrating in the end zone when a hush came over the crowd.
Persa was down on the ground holding his right foot. The season hung in the balance as the student section at Ryan Field chanted Persa’s name while he was escorted off the field. Persa ruptured the Achilles tendon in his right foot and took most of the Wildcats offense with him.
Persa is done for the season. He had surgery after the game on Nov. 13 against the then 13th-ranked Hawkeyes. Persa set a school and Big Ten record for completion percentage, passing at a rate of 73.5 percent.
He was the team’s leading rusher. Persa ran for 717 yards for the season and was a
special player, as referenced by head coach Pat Fitzgerald.
“He’s just a dynamic playmaker,” Fitzgerald said. “The [season] Dan had has just been absolutely spectacular. He’s a warrior.”
The quarterback from Bethlehem, Penn., had one of the best seasons behind center in Northwestern history. He passed for 2,581 yards and 15 touchdowns. He had nine rushing touchdowns for the season.
Persa had a career-best game against Iowa. He passed for 318 yards with 32 completions out of 43 attempts.
Taking his place for the remainder of the season will be Evan Watkins, a 6-foot-6-inch redshirt freshman from Carol Stream, Ill. Watkins saw action in two games before his first start on Nov. 20 against the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign at Wrigley Field, 1060 W. Addison St.
Fitzgerald noted neither Watkins, a former quarterback at Glenbard North High School, nor the team would be rattled by their recent adversity.
“I know Evan [Watkins] is poised and prepared,” Fitzgerald said. “Unfortunately through [Persa’s] situation, [it] becomes another man’s opportunity and all you can do is be prepared for it.”
The offense was balanced for the Wildcats with Persa as the quarterback. He never had a primary wide receiver other than Jeremy Ebert who has more than 800 yards of receiving.
“That’s kind of a tribute to our offense,” said Wildcats superback Drake Dunsmore on Nov. 13. “We’ve got guys all over the [field who] can make plays and [Persa] dishes it out. Whoever is open is getting the ball.”
Dunsmore is close friends with Persa. He said as the team celebrated the go-ahead touchdown, it was bittersweet to see Persa on the ground afterward. Persa didn’t show signs of being frustrated by the injury because his leadership wouldn’t allow any negativity to be displayed in front of the team, Dunsmore said.
Fitzgerald said Persa will be back for his senior year in 2011 and the quarterback won’t be close to satisfied with his 2010 season.
For Watkins, who will get his true road test when he faces the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisc. on Nov. 27, his coach and teammates haven’t let their confidence dwindle because of his inexperience at the position for the season.
“Evan [Watkins] is a talented physical specimen,” Fields said. “I’m excited to play with him. He’s got a real strong arm, and he might be able to see a few more things that Dan wasn’t able to see.”
With Persa leading the team in passing and rushing, Fitzgerald isn’t going to change much to the running game with Watkins as their quarterback. He said the team is about players, formations and good play calling.
As the team begins to get ready for bowl season, they will have plenty of time to make adjustments on offense with Watkins.
“We’re going to play to [each of] our players’ strengths,” Fitzgerald said. “Do the things we [believe] they can operate under and go out and execute. Still try to be a thorn in the defense’s hind parts.”