Persa, playing for the first time since rupturing his right Achilles' tendon on Nov. 13 against Iowa, needed a couple of series to regain his bearings. But once he got rolling, the Wildcats made the scoreboard look like a pinball machine and threw a scare into the 24th-ranked Illini.
During a six-drive stretch, Persa threw four touchdown passes to lift Northwestern to a 28-10 lead. He completed three of his scoring tosses to roommate Jeremy Ebert and the fourth to classmate Drake Dunsmore.
Alas, Persa didn't make it to the finish line. On a scramble early in the fourth quarter, Persa took a hit that indirectly affected his Achilles' tendon. After consulting with the doctors and head coach Pat Fitzgerald, Persa sat out the rest of the way. Kain Colter took over and, with the focus on NU's ground attack, led the Wildcats to a go-ahead score with 1:15 to go that didn't hold up.
"I felt some pain at the bottom of my (right) heel and then the top of my Achilles' started to stiffen up," Persa said in the Daily Herald. "In the past, that's kind of when setbacks have happened. Yeah, I feel fine. It's one of those things where it tightens up on you, you can't run as well, I can't escape and I put myself into even more problems. I'm sure it'll be fine."
Persa, who believes he'll play Saturday when Michigan comes to Ryan Field, finished 10 of 14 for 123 yards and the career-high 4 touchdown passes. He rushed nine times for minus-3 yards as he was sacked four times and scrambled for positive yardage on three other occasions.
The rest of Northwestern's rushing offense benefited from Persa's return as running backs Treyvon Green, Mike Trumpy and Jacob Schmidt combined for 144 yards and one touchdown on 35 carries. Alas, Trumpy injured his left knee during the third quarter and could be lost for an extended period of time.
--Northwestern's pass defense was riddled by Illinois deep threat A.J. Jenkins. The senior set a school record with 268 receiving yards as QB Nathan Scheelhaase kept finding him wide-open in the secondary. Jenkins caught a 40-yard strike on the game's second play and added three scoring catches (for 14, 33 and 50 yards) as the game wore on. The frequent victims? Redshirt freshman safety Ibraheim Campbell and senior cornerback Jeravin Matthews, both of whom are in their first year as starters.
"We have some young players making some young mistakes," said NU coach Pat Fitzgerald in the Chicago Tribune. "We have to coach 'em better, that's the bottom line. Competition is always open in our program. If guys aren't doing what they're supposed to do, they'll find themselves standing next to me."
--Illinois' high-risk, high-reward passing attack didn't work too well early as Northwestern's defensive line launched a fierce pass rush. The Wilddcats piled up four sacks in the opening 23 minutes, but didn't earn any in the game's final 37 minutes. Senior DE Vince Browne, senior DT Jack DiNardo, junior DE Quentin Williams and redshirt freshman OLB Collin Ellis earned the sacks.
--Pat Fitzgerald looked at the game's final stats and considered Northwestern's loss an "anomaly" because the Wildcats scored touchdowns on all four of their trips into the red zone and earned a 3-1 victory in the turnover battle. The Wildcats' lone turnover came on the game's final play when they ran a hook-and-ladder and lateraled three times in an attempt to go 63 yards for a score.
KEEP AN EYE ON: RB Treyvon Green -- With Mike Trumpy dealing with an injured knee, this true freshman developed into the team's primary ball-carrier in the second half. Green finished with a career-high 17 carries for a career-high 67 yards. However, he'll need to learn to pass-protect better if he wants more time. On one or two of Illinois' four sacks, Green whiffed on his block and Dan Persa never had a chance.
LOOKING GOOD: Senior QB Dan Persa made his 2011 debut and quickly reformed his terrific partnership with classmates Drake Dunsmore and Jeremy Ebert. Dunsmore had 3 catches for 26 yards and 1 TD early, then Persa and Ebert hooked up five times for 68 yards and 3 TDs. Safety Brian Peters flew all over the field and piled up a game-high 13 tackles to go with an interception in the end zone and a forced fumble that led to NU's go-ahead score with 1:15 to go.
STILL NEEDS WORK: Northwestern decided to take away the run from Illinois, which made it hard to take away the deep passes. The Wildcats allowed A.J. Jenkins to roam free on several occasions -- and tight end Evan Wilson also got open 10 yards behind the safeties -- as they gave up 391 yards and three scores through the air. Punter Brandon Williams was asked to boot a few rugby punts and shanked one of them.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We had the biggest of highs and lowest of lows all in one game." -- Northwestern senior receiver Jeremy Ebert, who caught a career-high 3 TD passes, quoted in the Chicago Tribune after Saturday's loss at Illinois.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--QB Dan Persa hadn't played in more than 10 months, but he threw four touchdown passes in just 14 attempts at Illinois. The fifth-year senior displayed terrific timing with senior WR Jeremy Ebert as they hooked up for two short TD passes in the corner of the end zone. Persa also clicked with Ebert on a 39-yard score on a perfect post pattern.
--QB/WR/RB Kain Colter showed up in several spots on the field with Persa back in the fold. Colter, who started the first three games at QB, lined up on several occasions in the slot. On a few occasions, he went into motion as if prepared to take an option pitch from Persa. Then, when Persa reinjured his Achilles' tendon, Colter played the last three possessions at QB.
--WR Jeremy Ebert caught 5 passes for 68 yards and a career-high 3 touchdowns. Ebert, a first-team all-Big Ten pick by the media last year, has 5 TD catches in the last two games. Ebert ranks third on NU's all-time list with 15 career TD receptions.
--QB Dan Persa was hit on the bottom of his right foot, which caused a problem at the top of his surgically repaired Achilles' tendon. Persa sat out the final 12 minutes Saturday, but suggested he'll be ready to go Oct. 8 against Michigan.
--RB Mike Trumpy limped off the field with a left knee injury and finished the day on crutches. Coach Pat Fitzgerald called it a knee sprain "at this time," which suggests there'll be worse news coming on Monday.
--DT Jack DiNardo (groin) returned to the lineup after missing two games and had six tackles with one sack.