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September 22, 2011

Persa to play against Illinois

EVANSTON -- The normally evasive Pat Fitzgerald put the status of star quarterback Dan Persa in no uncertain terms on Thursday.

"I'd be shocked if he didn't play" next Saturday against Illinois, the Northwestern head coach said after the Wildcats' morning practice.

Fitzgerald has been playing a cat-and-mouse game with the media about Persa for more than a month, so the fact that he was so forthcoming spoke emphatically that, after 10 months of rehab, Persa is finally ready to play.

When told about his coach's statement, Persa agreed without batting an eye.

"I'm ready to go," said the fifth-year senior who has yet to take a snap this season. "I don't consider myself injured anymore."

Persa has been sidelined since last Nov. 13, when he tore his right Achilles tendon in a win over Iowa. He had surgery that night and has been rehabbing diligently and facing constant media scrutiny since.

Persa took the overwhelming majority of snaps with the first-team offense during Thursday's one-hour and 40-minute practice. He ran sprint outs and options during live scrimmages and said he "felt really good" after a couple bursts on the field.

"I'm working back to 100-percent effectiveness I had last year," he said. "I think I'm really, really close, but I'm not there yet. But I'm at a point where I can play."

Fitzgerald said that his preseason Heisman Trophy candidate has gone through a gradual progression since the season started to get to this point.

"What I've seen is that he's been really close the last three weeks," Fitzgerald said. "The amount of reps he's taken has increased each week, he gets his timing down and his rhythm down even more."

Fitzgerald added that he doesn't expect Persa to be rusty when he takes the field against the Illini. He said that the acclimation process began at the start of camp in August and "we're light years from that."

Persa said that he was "totally cleared" to play in Northwestern's 21-14 loss to Army last Saturday but the coaching staff decided before kickoff that he wouldn't. They made that call before the game to avoid making a decision in the heat of the moment, when emotions are running high.

It turned that Fitzgerald did make a move in the heat of the moment. With his offense sputtering, Fitzgerald decided to pull starting quarterback Kain Colter in the fourth quarter. With Persa not available, he inserted backup Trevor Siemian, who threw a touchdown pass but wasn't able to rally the Wildcats to a win.

Fitzgerald declined to disclose whether Persa would start or when the team might decide on whether he'll start. He joked that he would tell the media at "10:58," just two minutes before the Wildcats' 11 a.m. kickoff against Illinois.

Will the Wildcats use Persa in tandem with Colter, who started Northwestern's first three games this season in his absence?

Fitzgerald wouldn't say anything, but Persa hinted that the team would find some sort of a role for Colter.

"We haven't talked about that just yet, but I'm sure we'll figure something out," said Persa. "He's too athletic to sit on the bench."



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