More Questions Than Answers

The Sports Xchange looks at where Northwestern stands this bye week, plus gives some notes and quotes.

In 2010, Northwestern suffered a wholly unexpected home loss to Purdue going into its bye week. After spending two weeks marinating in the pain of their first loss, the Wildcats roared out to a 17-0 lead against No. 8 Michigan State ... only to falter in the final five minutes and lose 35-27.

If Northwestern learned any lessons from that experience, then they need to be put into effect now. The Wildcats are reeling after a wholly unexpected loss at Army on Saturday, but they need to refocus on their Oct. 1 Big Ten opener against an Illinois team that will be nationally ranked barring a stunning upset this week.

Northwestern left West Point with several question marks: Can sophomore quarterback Kain Colter throw accurately enough against a good team to lead NU to victory? Is there a healthy running back that can be a legitimate threat? Has the Wildcats' defense regressed to last year's level when Illinois and Wisconsin trampled all over the Purple? Can the kicker make a field goal? Can the punter regain last year's consistency?

All of those questions, though, could be answered by an unrelated issue: Is senior quarterback Dan Persa healthy enough to return to the controls? Persa, who has missed six games since rupturing his right Achilles' tendon on Nov. 13 against Iowa, ramped up his practice workload prior to the 21-14 loss at Army. Coach Pat Fitzgerald suggested Persa will try to do more this week in hopes of being cleared to play at Illinois.

"Hopefully we can get Dan back on the field," Colter said in the Chicago Tribune after the Army loss. "I think today it showed that we need him."

If Persa returns, then Colter can return to being the hybrid threat that worked so well in the TicketCity Bowl on New Year's Day. Though Colter played several snaps at quarterback, he started at running back and posted 108 rushing yards scored two touchdowns.

If Persa returns and retains the touch that led the nation in completion percentage last year, then Northwestern ought to be able to return to the days where it controlled the clock with short passes that led to long drives. Army held the ball for 40 minutes on Saturday. If the Wildcats regain the offensive style that holds the ball for 32-35 minutes, then the defense gets better by default.

Persa can neither kick nor punt, but a better offense generates more opportunities (reducing the pressure on any one kick by Jeff Budzien) and allows the punter to kick from better field position.

That's a lot of pressure to put on one player, but that comes with the territory when you earn first-team all-Big Ten honors the year before.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Northwestern heads into its bye week last among Big Ten teams in rushing defense (205.7 ypg). When Army piled up 381 rushing yards on Sept. 17, it was painfully reminiscent of last year's finishing stretch when each of NU's last five opponents had a 100-yard rusher. Illinois' Mikel Leshoure went so far as to set a school record with his 330-yard performance.

The Illini don't have a rusher that compares with Leshoure, who left for the NFL a year early. But it might be instructive to know Illinois coach Ron Zook thought current starting RB Jason Ford would beat out Leshoure for the job last season. To be sure, Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino will try to pound NU's defense early and often in their Big Ten opener on Oct. 1.

--Northwestern conducted its usual mid-morning practices during its bye week. From an academic perspective, it's a good week for the Wildcats to have a Saturday off because fall quarter classes start on Tues., Sept. 20. The younger players have time to move into their residence halls and get everything lined up before launching into a nine-games-in-nine-weeks gantlet.

--Northwestern hasn't been great at kickoff returns for a long time as the Wildcats preferred their returners to be safe. Sophomore Venric Mark has changed NU's return game. The Wildcats rank 12th nationally with 28.9 yards per kick return --- all of them performed by the 5-foot-8, 175-pound Houston native. Mark gained confidence at the end of last season when he returned a kick for a score against Wisconsin. He had nine returns that day for 273 yards.

BYE WEEK MISSION: Get healthy. QB Dan Persa, RB Adonis Smith, WR Tony Jones, DT Jack DiNardo, DT Brian Arnfelt and OLB Collin Ellis all missed the Army game due to injury. In fact, Persa, Jones, Arnfelt and Ellis have missed all three games. All but Jones were slated to start this year ... and Jones might be the top deep threat in NU's deep receiving corps.

LOOKING AHEAD: Due to an unlikely bit of scheduling, Northwestern plays four of its first six Big Ten games on the road. That includes the school's first trip to Nebraska since 1974. If the Wildcats intend to compete for the Legends title, then there's no room for error or an Army-loss hangover.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "To give you a little snapshot of our locker room afterward, we know the challenge in front of us, and it starts this week as we prepare for the Big Ten. That's why we all came to Northwestern, to play Big Ten football. We're real eager." -- Senior LB Bryce McNaul telling the Chicago Tribune that Northwestern starting thinking about the Illinois game as soon the loss to Army concluded.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Sophomore Kain Colter did a reasonable Dan Persa imitation during Northwestern's first two games -- especially when it came to running the ball -- but it became clear against Army on Sept. 17 that Colter doesn't have the throwing chops to be like Dan. The Wildcats have a strong group of receivers led by seniors Jeremy Ebert and Drake Dunsmore that isn't maximizing its potential. The Wildcats are running the ball well enough to win, though injuries to Mike Trumpy and Adonis Smith haven't helped. Each sophomore missed a game. The veteran offensive line has been solid, but not good enough considering all of the experience.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Northwestern's veterans (DE Vince Browne, S Brian Peters, CB Jordan Mabin, OLB Bryce McNaul) have done their jobs for the most part. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, they have more new starters than vets. Redshirt freshman safety Ibraheim Campbell's rookie mistakes have been responsible for two 65-yard-plus plays. Other new starters haven't been consistent. While injuries have been a factor in the Wildcats' struggles, Boston College proved it could throw all over the yard against NU and Army proved it could trample all over the yard.

ROSTER REPORT

--QB Dan Persa (Achilles' tendon) has yet to play this season, but he was cleared for emergency use at Army. That counts as progress, so there's a decent chance Persa should be good to go on Oct. 1 at Illinois.

--DT Jack DiNardo (leg) missed the last two games. While he hasn't walked with much of a limp, clearly there's an issue holding back the second-year starter. The Wildcats are optimistic he'll return for Illinois.

--RB Adonis Smith (lower right leg) sat out the Army game after getting hurt severely enough on Sept. 10 against Eastern Illinois to require crutches to get to the trainer's room. It's too soon to gauge whether Smith, who had 28 carries for 108 yards and 1 TD in NU's first two games, will play against Illinois.

--OLB Collin Ellis (thumb), DT Brian Arnfelt (leg) and WR Tony Jones (knee) have yet to play this season. Ellis won the strong-side linebacker job before breaking his thumb less than two weeks before the opener. Arnfelt is the strongest player on the D-Line room and the Wildcats need somebody stout up the middle. Jones caught 11 passes for 157 yards and 1 TD in limited duty last year, so he's a useful part of the offense.


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