To refresh everyone's memory, Northwestern entered last season's game on Nov. 20 with a ton of momentum after beating No. 13 Iowa on Persa's last-minute touchdown pass to Demetrius Fields. At the same time, the Wildcats entered Wrigley Field with no momentum because Persa ruptured his right Achilles' tendon moments after throwing that pass. With redshirt freshman quarterback Evan Watkins struggling against the Illini in his first career start — and Illinois' running game shredding the Wildcats defense to the tune of 519 yards — Northwestern suffered a 48-27 loss that triggered a three-game losing streak to close out the year.
This time around, the Wildcats are smarting after their 21-14 loss at Army on Sept. 17. But with Persa ready to play for the first time since that Iowa game, suddenly Northwestern feels pretty good about its chances Saturday at No. 24 Illinois.
"I'm not going to overanalyze it," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said in the Chicago Tribune. "I think the guy's pretty good. They put his picture on a billboard, so it's pretty cool to get a guy like that back."
Fitzgerald's billboard crack references NU's preseason campaign for "Chicago's Heisman Candidate," which included billboards on a busy Chicago expressway and a strategic road near ESPN's headquarters in Bristol, Conn. While Persa isn't a part of that race after sitting out the first three games, it's important to remember why the Wildcats went out of their way for the fifth-year senior: Not only did he lead the nation in completion percentage last year (73.5), he joined Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton and Hawaii's Bryant Moniz as the only QBs to finish among the national top 10 in total yards per game and passer efficiency.
Persa said he's feeling good enough that he believes he can play the whole game Saturday, if necessary. It's more likely that sophomore Kain Colter, who started the first three games, also will get some snaps. And when Colter, who leads NU with 237 rushing yards and 4 TDs, isn't at quarterback, it seems likely he'll show up elsewhere on the field. After all, he started at running back in last season's TicketCity Bowl.
Persa isn't the only Wildcat who returns to the fold this week. Northwestern also regains the services of senior defensive tackle Jack DiNardo, who missed the last two games with a leg injury, as well as redshirt freshman outside linebacker Collin Ellis and senior safety David Arnold. Ellis, a projected starter, missed the first three games with a broken thumb.
—With senior QB Dan Persa ready to play Saturday at Illinois, Northwestern finally gets to play with a full deck on offense. Persa missed all three games to ensure his healed right Achilles' tendon was ready to go. Top RB Mike Trumpy sat out Game 2 with a concussion. RB Adonis Smith, the team's second-best runner, missed Game 3 against Army with a leg injury.
—Northwestern's defense doesn't need to be reminded how last year's game against Illinois turned out. Illini RB Mikel Leshoure set a school record with 330 rushing yards as the victors piled up 519 yards on the ground. "They're probably going to try to run the ball on us, so that's the first thing we want to stop is their run," said cornerback Jordan Mabin. "Just playing physical (will matter). Last year, I think we got outmatched a little bit. So just focusing in on the physicality of the game, the speed of the game and just flying around."
—Northwestern's special teams haven't exactly been special to date. Redshirt sophomore Jeff Budzien, who won the placement job during the fall after a tight battle with Steve Flaherty, has made just 1 of 3 field goals. He missed a 26-yarder on the final play of the first half against Army that would've given NU a 10-7 lead at the break. Redshirt sophomore punter Brandon Williams, who enjoyed a solid season last year, is averaging just 39.3 yards on his 14 punts. That includes 3 touchbacks.
SERIES HISTORY: Illinois leads 53-46-5 (last meeting, 2010, 48-27 Illinois)
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: With Dan Persa expected to be back at the controls this week, Northwestern regains the ability to attack vertically as well as horizontally. Sophomore QB Kain Colter was excellent on the run, but his arm isn't as strong or as accurate as the nation's reigning completion-percentage champ. Persa's return allows NU's deep receiving corps to have a bigger impact on games. Expect Jeremy Ebert, who scored twice against Army, and senior superback Drake Dunsmore to catch passes early and often in the Wildcats' spread offense.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Northwestern thought it addressed last year's horrendous problems against the run, but Army opened up old wounds with its 381 rushing yards on Sept. 17. Illinois doesn't run the same system as Army, which is a good thing for the Wildcats, but NU needs to be much more physical than it was during last year's debacle against the Illini. DT Jack DiNardo's return should help inside. Redshirt freshman OLB Collin Ellis hasn't played a down of college football, but he should be an upgrade due to his quickness and his eagerness to make plays.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's not only mentally ready, I think he's chomping at the bit to play. For a young man like Dan, a work ethic that he's been committed to — no disrespect to any other player in college football, but no one's had to go through what he went through this offseason. And he has handled it as well as anybody could possibly could." — NU coach Pat Fitzgerald discussing Dan Persa's thought process as he prepares to make his season debut Saturday against Illinois.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Northwestern at Illinois, Oct. 1 — From 1999 to 2008, this Land of Lincoln Trophy game served as the Big Ten finale for both teams. This marks the first time since 1984 that the Wildcats and Illini open Big Ten play against each other. This rivalry has increased in importance and perceived vitriol during the Fitzgerald-Zook years, but this year's game is all about getting a jump start in the league.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Northwestern can't allow Illinois to control the clock with its running game. Army accomplished that on Sept. 17 because Northwestern couldn't get off the field on third and fourth down. Western Michigan enjoyed success against Illinois (and neutralized its pass rush somewhat) with quick drops and quick throws. Expect Dan Persa to do the same against the Illini. NU's spread offense is made for quick hits to the slot receivers, though Illinois will try to take away top target Jeremy Ebert with top coverage guy Tavon Wilson.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Dan Persa — The fifth-year senior earned first-team all-Big Ten honors last year despite missing the last three games due to his ruptured Achilles' tendon. Now Persa returns to the field for the first time since suffering the injury Nov. 13. For those who've forgotten last year's stats, Persa completed a Big Ten-record 73.5 percent of his passes for 2,581 yards, 15 TDs and 4 INT. He also rushed for 519 yards and 9 TDs in his 10 games.
RB Mike Trumpy — After missing the Eastern Illinois game with a concussion, Trumpy returned during the second quarter of the Army game and contributed 34 yards in 8 carries. The sophomore enjoyed the biggest game of his career last year against Illinois. He rushed for 129 yards and 2 TDs despite breaking his wrist in the first quarter.
WR Jeremy Ebert — After getting shut out against Eastern Illinois, Ebert became Northwestern's primary playmaker against Army with 6 catches for 108 yards and 2 TDs. He might be the most excited about Persa's return. During their 10 games together last year, Ebert caught 54 passes for 849 yards and 8 TDs. In the 3 games without Persa last year, Ebert caught 8 passes for 104 yards and no scores.
—QB Dan Persa (healed right Achilles' tendon) is listed as Northwestern's co-starter at quarterback for the second consecutive game, but this time he's going to play. It will be his first action since suffering his injury Nov. 13 against Iowa.
—DT Jack DiNardo (leg) returns to the top of the depth chart after missing the last two games. He's the Wildcats' most experienced defensive tackle, so he'll be welcomed back against Illinois' physical attack.
—OLB Collin Ellis (broken thumb) and S David Arnold (unspecified) are back on the depth chart this week. Ellis, a starter until he suffered his injury in late August, missed all 3 games while Arnold played little against Eastern Illinois and missed the Army game.
—RB Adonis Smith (lower right leg) should be ready to go after sitting out the Army game. The sophomore is third on the team in rushing (108) and averages 3.9 yards per carry.