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November 13, 2010

An expensive win

EVANSTON-The irony of the moment was worthy of Shakespeare.

A group of Northwestern players was in the corner of the end zone, celebrating Demetrius Fields' 20-yard touchdown catch with 1:22 left, the score that turned out to be the game-winner. Meanwhile, Dan Persa, the man who threw the ball and almost singlehandedly rallied his team to the win, lay on the ground, suffering from the injury that would end his season.

Northwestern's scintillating, come-from-behind, 21-17 win over No. 13 Iowa was a very expensive one. Persa -- arguably more valuable to his team than any other player in the country -- ruptured his Achilles tendon on that fateful play and will be out the rest of the season. The touchdown pass to Fields will be his last throw of the 2010 season.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald announced the injury at the post-game press conference.

"Unfortunately (Persa) ruptured his Achilles, so he'll have surgery tonight, and be out for the remainder of the season," he said. "I'll have updates on Monday. The year that Danny's had has been absolutely spectacular. He's a warrior and this will pass."

Persa was pressured but not hit on the play. He stood in the pocket after his throw, lightly jumping up and down, waiting to see if Fields came up with the catch.

Fields did, but Persa softly rolled onto the ground shortly thereafter. He had to be helped off the field by Northwestern trainers and was unable to put any weight on his foot. He was carted off the field after the game.

Persa finished 32-of-43 for 318 yards against Iowa, all career highs. Both of his touchdown passes came in the final 6:21 as Northwestern rallied from a 17-7 fourth-quarter deficit to steal the win. His lone interception was the result of a perfectly placed pass that went right through the hands of receiver Tony Jones into the hands of Iowa's Jeremiha Hunter.

Persa also rushed for 50 yards and another touchdown, accounting for all of the Wildcats' scores in the game.

Losing a quarterback is a difficult proposition for any offense, but the loss of Persa will be especially devastating to Northwestern. The Wildcats, without the benefit of an effective running game, rely on their junior leader to make plays with both his arm and legs.

Going into Saturday's game against Iowa, Persa had accounted for an average of 303.6 of Northwestern's 409.8 yards of total offense per game (74 percent). Against Iowa, he racked up 368 of Northwestern's 419 yards (87.8 percent).

Northwestern seemed to be following a familiar pattern of a fast start and a fading finish against the Hawkeyes. The Wildcats built a 7-3 halftime lead, only to see it evaporate as Iowa scored two touchdowns on long third-quarter drives to take a 17-7 lead.

The Wildcats had been in this position before, of course. They had lost second-half leads in all three of their losses this season.

Just last week at Penn State, Northwestern's 21-7 halftime lead was wiped out by four consecutive Nittany Lion touchdowns. The Wildcats also blew fourth-quarter advantages against Michigan State and Purdue in consecutive games last month.

While Iowa rallied to sieze the lead, Northwestern's offense was mired in a funk. The Wildcats' four second-half possessions resulted in three punts and an interception before they reversed the trend with a 13-play, 85-yard march to pull to within 17-14.

Persa was 7-of-8 for 72 yards on the drive, the last of which was a perfectly lofted 6-yard TD pass that came down right over Jeremy Ebert's shoulder on a corner route with 6:21 left.

After NU forced an Iowa punt, Persa drove the Wildcats 91 yards in 11 plays for the winning score. On that drive he was 5-of-8 for 63 yards, completing each pass to a different receiver. He also ran for the first down on all three third-downs the Wildcats faced, one of them a 22-yarder that was NU's longest play from scrimmage all day.

With Persa sidelined, redshirt freshman Evan Watkins will take over the Wildcat offense. Watkins has looked like, well, a redshirt freshman in spot duty this season. He played in just four games, completing 3 of 7 passes for 21 yards.

"I know one guy that probably won't sleep tonight, and that's Evan," said Fitzgerald. "I've got a feeling the first guy I'll see tomorrow morning will be Evan. I've got a feeling the guy I'll see the most this week will be Evan. It's a Chicago kid getting his first start in Wrigley Field against our in-state rival and I don't know if you could script a better opportunity for a young player.

"Again, it's under difficult circumstances without a doubt. You never want to see that happen, but it'll be a good opportunity."

Fitzgerald is a relentlessly positive coach, so he was not outwardly distraught by Persa's injury. He knows from personal experience that the negative circumstance could turn into a positive.

"Unfortunately, I went through a similar deal back in 1995," said Fitzgerald, who was hurt against Iowa in November of the Wildcats' title run. "This guy named Donnie Holmes had his opportunity; 'Big D' stepped up and led us to Pasadena.

"I don't know if that is going to happen for us this year, but I know Evan [Watkins] is prepared. Someone's unfortunate situation becomes another man's opportunity. All you can do is be prepared for it, and he will be."



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