Football: Injuries not serious for Cats’ QBs

Danny Daly

Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi’s high ankle sprain made headlines after Northwestern’s 17-10 upset victory at Kinnick Stadium. It was given as an excuse for the Hawkeyes’ loss, while the injuries to Wildcats quarterbacks Mike Kafka (hamstring) and Dan Persa (hand) flew under the radar.

Fortunately for NU, both signal callers should be healthy for Saturday’s rivalry game against Illinois.

“The X-rays on Danny came back clean, so I feel optimistic about him,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said at Monday’s press conference. “Right now we list him day-to-day. Mike feels great. He came out of the game feeling better than he did on Friday, even playing as much as he did. … We fully expect Mike to be able to run our offense.”

Kafka is listed at the top of the depth chart to start the week. Both quarterbacks played in last weekend’s victory, splitting snaps until Persa took over on a regular basis in the second quarter. Kafka returned near the end of the third quarter due to Persa’s hand injury.They combined for one touchdown, one interception and 109 yards on 15-of-27 passing

against Iowa. Persa led the team with 75 yards on the ground as well.While there was uncertainty surrounding the quarterback situation before the game, switching back-and-forth between the two quarterbacks didn’t throw the offense out of rhythm.

“It didn’t feel much different,” said junior wide receiver Sidney Stewart, who led the team with four receptions. “We get a lot of reps in practice with Dan, so we were able to get into the sequence pretty early.”

The only adjustment the receivers had to make was to Persa’s slightly different release point and delivery. Stewart and Persa prepared by throwing a few extra balls after practice last Wednesday.

“Once that happened, I knew how (the ball) was going to come off,” Stewart said. “It’s not harder per se, but it (comes in at) a little bit more of a downward angle.”

Persa’s one completion to Stewart, which went for eight yards, set up a first down at the Iowa 29-yard line.

FRONT FOUR FIGHTS WITH TWO FISTSThough senior defensive end Corey Wootton delivered the hit that caused Stanzi to fumble in the end zone, it was senior defensive tackle Marshall Thomas who converted the mistake into points for the Cats.

“Corey made a great play, and I just saw the ball there,” Thomas said. “I felt like the center was right there next to me, and I was like, ‘Man, I need to jump on this.’ So I jumped on it, and then I looked up and I really realized I was in the end zone.”

It was Thomas’ first touchdown at any level, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The score cut Iowa’s lead to three and gave NU momentum despite its struggling offense.

Outside of that play, the Cats’ defensive line performed well against arguably the top offensive line in the conference. The Hawkeyes were held to just 2.4 yards per rush and allowed two sacks, while constant pressure often forced redshirt freshman quarterback James Vandenberg to get rid of the ball quickly or throw it away.

“Our defensive front played really well,” Fitzgerald said. “We played a number of different guys. I thought Jack (DiNardo) played his best game. Quentin (Williams) played the best game of his career, (and had a) big caused fumble there just on an effort play. I’m very pleased with that group.”

Williams’ forced fumble occurred near the end of the second quarter. Thomas also recovered that loose ball, though NU couldn’t capitalize on the turnover.

LOOKING INTO A MIRRORNU has gameplanned for a handful of mobile quarterbacks this season, and it will do so again for Illinois quarterback Juice Williams. The senior has been hobbled by injuries, including one to his ankle that forced him to sit out the final three quarters in last weekend’s win at Minnesota. That hasn’t stopped him from throwing for 1,139 yards and rushing for 384 more.

But Williams and the Illini will give the Cats a different challenge than other opponents have.

“This is the first real spread team that we’ve played, running a little zone read and some speed option and that stuff that we haven’t seen yet this year,” junior defensive tackle Corbin Bryant said.

NU’s defense has seen some of those schemes before, though – in practice against its own offense. The similarities between coordinator Mick McCall’s attack and the one run by Illinois should help the Cats on Saturday.

“It actually does make it a little easier, because that’s the stuff we worked on all summer, all those different fits and calls for the spread option,” Bryant said.[email protected]