Persa stays hot, Cats rout Rice 30-13

Colin Becht

It was a game that in many ways never happened. The stands were mostly empty. There was no television coverage, with only a spotty online feed of the game available.

Northwestern’s Saturday night match-up against Rice likely garnered little attention beyond the Houston and Evanston areas.

And that’s just the way the Wildcats wanted it to be.

NU (3-0) made sure there were no surprises, taking care of business in a 30-13 thumping of Rice (1-2) in Houston.

“The way we played made a little bit of a statement,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

Junior quarterback Dan Persa again anchored the Cats offense, completing 24-of-32 passes for a career-high 307 yards, including a 27-yard strike to junior wide receiver Jeremy Ebert for a touchdown. Persa added a second touchdown on the ground with an 18-yard scramble.

Through three games this season, Persa has yet to throw an interception and has accounted for eight total touchdowns.

Junior superback Drake Dunsmore led all receivers with 87 yards receiving on six catches, including a 47-yard reception that saw Dunsmore hurdling and shrugging off defenders as he carried the ball downfield. The 47-yard completion was the Cats’ second-longest play this season behind only a 50-yard strike from Persa to freshman wide receiver Rashad Lawrence against Illinois State.

Ebert added four catches for 82 yards and his second touchdown of the season.

Senior linebacker Quentin Davie, coming off a two-interception game a week ago, picked off Rice quarterback Taylor Cook and returned the interception 11 yards for NU’s first touchdown of the game.

“It was a great feeling,” said Davie of his first career touchdown. “All I saw in front of me was the end zone.”

Davie and the NU defense stifled an explosive Rice offense, headlined by former Michigan running back Sam McGuffie. McGuffie was held to 30 yards rushing and Rice combined for just 86 total yards on the ground in 23 attempts.

“The defense really stepped up,” Fitzgerald said.

Rice’s lone touchdown came long after most fans had started to head for the exits when running back Turner Peterson rushed 10 yards to the end zone with 14 seconds remaining.

The Cats defense forced four turnovers, matching their season-high set against Illinois State. Davie and sophomore Hunter Bates both recorded interceptions – Bates’ first career interception ­– while junior defensive tackle Jack DiNardo and sophomore defensive end Quentin Williams came up with fumble recoveries.

On the season, the Cats have a plus-six turnover differential, and Saturday’s plus-three margin led to 13 of NU’s 30 points.

Still, NU was not immune from hurting itself with turnovers as sophomore running back Arby Fields coughed up the ball on the Rice goal line, costing the Cats six points. Fields’ fumble was NU’s seventh fumble of the season and the third fumble lost.

After rushing for a career-best 96 yards against Illinois State, Fields was held to 55 yards rushing on 17 carries on Saturday, a 3.2 yards per carry average. Despite looking to establish its running game with 45 attempts, NU mustered only 144 yards on the ground.

Senior kicker Stefan Demos showed progress after a shaky start to the season, connecting on field goal attempts from 42, 28 and 21 yards. It was his first game this year without a missed field goal, and the 42-yarder was Demos’ longest of the season.

“We executed in all three phases,” Fitzgerald said.

With the win, NU continued its impressive stretch of play on the road, winning nine of their past 12 road games. The Cats have been equally impressive in nonconference games, winning 11 of their last 12 contests.

Despite the minimal attention on this week’s game, the Cats racked up three votes in the Associated Press poll and 15 in the USA Today coaches’ poll.

NU finishes up its nonconference schedule Saturday when it hosts Mid-American Conference foe Central Michigan.

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