Despite injury, Persa still contributing off the field

Jonah Rosenblum

In a season in which Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa made very few mistakes, the smallest of errors led to the gravest of consequences, as a bad step led to a season-ending injury against Iowa.

The junior confirmed at a press conference on Dec. 5 that he ruptured his Achilles tendon as he looked up to watch his game-winning touchdown pass against the Hawkeyes.

“I was looking up to see and I kind of just planted wrong,” Persa said. “I looked up to see if he caught it, landed, and it just snapped.”

Without Persa, the team has dropped its past two games by a combined score of 118-50. Both backup quarterbacks, freshman Kain Colter and redshirt freshman Evan Watkins have struggled in Persa’s absence.

Watkins has completed just 23-of-42 passes, with four interceptions and only one passing touchdown, while Colter, a dual-threat quarterback, has been unable to get anything going on the ground and has yet to complete a pass.

Is Persa surprised by the poor performances of Watkins and Colter?

“A little bit,” Persa said. “For me, I got to warm up with a non-conference schedule and to get thrown in with a Big Ten schedule is a tough deal for them. I think they’ve been improving a lot, their attitudes are in the right spot, but at the same time, they still have a long way to go.”

Of course, the fault for the five interceptions and myriad other miscues that have plagued NU in recent weeks does not only lie with Watkins and Colter.

“A lot of times when you’re outside watching in, you think of only the people carrying, holding the ball, but often times it’s the people at the point of attack,” senior tackle Al Netter said. “There were a few times where it definitely was the offensive line’s fault, Either pressure in Evan’s face forcing an interception or there were a couple times when the ball got deflected or ripped out of his hand.”

If the offensive line can improve its play, Netter is confident in what his team’s quarterbacks can do.

“Evan and Cain are both extremely talented quarterbacks if we give them the time,” Netter said. “I can’t say that we did that in the last two games.”

The Cats hope talent will combine with increased experience to produce positive results. By early December, the two freshman quarterbacks had already exceeded the number of practices they had in preparation for Wisconsin and Illinois, according to coach Pat Fitzgerald.

And with all the practices the Cats will have between their meltdown in Madison and their bowl game in Dallas, Fitzgerald is confident his quarterbacks will be better when they next take the field against Texas Tech.

“They’ll be much more prepared for this game then they possibly could have been for our last two games,” Fitzgerald said on December 11. “For me, that’s exciting and encouraging and I like the steps they’ve made so far, but I’m glad we’re not playing today, we’ve got a long way to go.”

Colter and Watkins may also benefit from the coaching of one of the nation’s best quarterbacks: Dan Persa.

Persa, who gained national renown while leading NU to seven wins and a third consecutive bowl game, will not play against Texas Tech, but is doing everything he can to help the Cats get that elusive eighth win, including frequent conversations with his understudies.

“I’ve been at pretty much everything so far, coaching [Watkins and Colter] up from behind, talking to them after every play, each series,” Persa said. “The good thing about them is they are all eager to learn.”

Although Persa is far from being able to step on the playing field, as Fitzgerald jokingly alluded to during a press conference, the quarterback is making significant progress.

“Obviously, it’s a slow process at the beginning, but I see a lot of improvement pretty quickly, which is exciting,” Persa said. “I’m ahead of schedule. It’s a long journey so I’m just trying to take it day by day.”

Persa showed up to that Dec. 5 press conference without crutches. Only the boot on his right foot served as a reminder of the injury he suffered.

“Danny’s already off of crutches,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s walking on the boot so he’s definitely going to be more active than he was for the Wrigley game and then the Wisconsin game.”

As positive a sign as that might be, Persa refuses to set a specific goal for when he will return to the gridiron. Fitzgerald said Friday that Persa is “three to four weeks ahead of schedule.”

“I just take it week by week,” Persa said. “I meet with the doctor every week and he tells me what I can do and what I can’t do. I just kind of go from there. I don’t want to look too far into the future because that can kind of get me in trouble.”

So, when NU takes the field Saturday seeking its first bowl victory in 61 years, Persa will, for the third game in a row, be confined to the bench. While he admitted that the time spent off the playing field has left him feeling a little stir-crazy at times, he said he has also learned from the experience.

“You see a couple things that you wouldn’t see playing, but I think just the biggest thing is how precious it is to play,” Persa said. “I knew that before I got hurt, but once you get sat down for six months, now you’re like I really understand it.”

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