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B1G 2011 // Northwestern Cocktail Party Preview: Just How Good Is Dan Persa?



Hiya everyone! Guess what today is? It's my birthday (seriously), but more importantly it's also the start of Northwestern week here on Off Tackle Empire! I'll be spending my birthday enjoying the gift that Northwestern is giving me -- an antitrust law final. Ah law school... the gift that just keeps on giving. And giving.

But since you're not me and you aren't taking an antitrust final right now, you have plenty of time to brush up on your Wildcat football by reading this cocktail party preview. Hopefully after reading this you'll be armed with enough information that the only thing you'll need at your next party with Northwestern alums is your best Armani suit (hah, see what I did there? Yeah, yeah you do.)




Northwestern at a glance...

First Season: 1882
Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (4th year, 31-23)
All-Time Record: 476-619-44 (.437)
2010 Record: 7-6 (3-5 Conference)


2010 was a season for Northwestern that started with surprise, ascended to hope, and then burst into flame alongside the remains of Dan Persa's ankle. Persa, Northwestern's quarterback, was starting at the position in his junior year after being the back up to Mike Kafka. In 2009 he appeared in only a few games, managed to throw two touchdowns and two interceptions, and simultaneously made Northwestern fans very nervous about the future. How Persa would function at quarterback, and whether Northwestern would finally develop a running game were the two big questions heading into the 2010 season. The answers? Quite well, and, no, of course they wouldn't.

The campaign started off well enough. The ‘Cats tore through cupcake competition, and, though they looked shaky in some games, they still notched the wins. They won their first Big Ten game of the season at Minnesota, but dropped two very winnable games to Purdue and Michigan State. This was followed by a completely predictable win against Indiana, a completely predictable loss to Penn State, and a completely predictable win over Iowa.

What wasn't completely predictable was that Dan Persa's season would end prematurely, just after he threw the clinching touchdown against the Hawkeyes. The Wildcat season pretty much ended there too. The team just wasn't the same without him, and Evan Watkins made it clear in the game against Illinois at Wrigley Field that he simply wasn't ready for prime time. Northwestern limped through the rest of the season and then dropped yet another bowl game, this time to Texas Tech.

Ultimately the 2010 season was one of, "what if?" for ‘Cats fans. What if Persa had stayed healthy all season? Would the ‘Cats have gone to a better bowl game? Even, perhaps, won a bowl game? Who knows...

[Conversation pointer: Recent news has focused on Northwestern's efforts to schedule marquee names for future seasons. They successfully locked down Notre Dame for two home-and-home series in 2014 and 2018, and just added a four game series with Stanford beginning in 2019. Notre Dame owns the head-to-head record against NU by a wide margin, so don't bring it up. But feel free to talk about the last time the two teams met, when the Wildcats upset the Irish in South Bend to open the 1995 season, a season which would end with Northwestern's first Big Ten championship since 1936.]



Dan Persa Returns:

By far the theme of the 2011 Northwestern football season will be the return of Dan Persa. Has he completely recovered from his Achilles injury? Will he be as effective, or more so, than in 2010? He's been rated as a 2012 NFL draft sleeper by ESPN, and is a strong contender for all-Big Ten honors if he manages to stay healthy and put together another campaign like he did in 2010.

Beyond that, other questions abound. Can Pat Fitzgerald keep his streak of bowl games alive? The appearance was their eighth post-season appearance since 1995. Fitzgerald is now tied with Randy Walker for taking his teams to the most bowl games as a Northwestern coach at three. The ‘Cats still haven't won a bowl game since 1949, and every year fans hope that it will finally be this year that the streak is broken.

The question of the run game also remains to be answered. Basically, is it even possible for Northwestern to develop one? Persa is a slippery QB, which is great, but what's not great is the fact that he was the second leading rusher on the team last year, despite missing several games. Only Mike Trumpy rushed for more yards in the 2010 season than Persa, totaling an unimpressive 530. Freshman running back Adonis Smith showed some flashes of potential, but didn't make the impact fans had hoped for. The team also suffered a loss as running back Arby Fields decided to transfer after losing the starting job during the 2010 season. If the Wildcats really want to be good in 2011, they'll have to have contributions from either Tumpy or Smith to open up opportunities for Persa in the passing game. The team can't win its tough match-ups as a one dimensional offense.



In the Cupboard:

Total returning starters: 17 (9 offense, 7 defense, 1 special teams)

Northwestern retains most of its offense heading into the 2011 season, including QB Dan Persa and running backs Mike Trumpy and Adonis Smith. Jeremy Ebert, who led the team in receiving during the 2010 season at 953 yards, also returns. The defense returns seven starters, but will be looking for leadership at linebacker and CB where they lost seniors. The 2010 iteration of the defense wasn't particularly inspiring, so the question that must be asked heading into 2011 is whether the high-powered offense can score enough points to compensate for the likely vulnerabilities on the defensive side of the ball.


2011 Schedule:

Date Opponent
09/03/11 at Boston College
09/10/11 vs. Eastern Illinois
09/17/11 at Army
10/01/11 at Illinois
10/08/11 vs. Michigan
10/15/11 at Iowa
10/22/11 vs. Penn State
10/29/11 at Indiana
11/05/11 at Nebraska
11/12/11 vs. Rice
11/19/11 vs. Minnesota
11/26/11 vs. Michigan State
12/03/11 Big Ten Championship

[Conversation Pointer: Northwestern's season fate should be clear by the end of the game on 10/22. A quick glance at the schedule reveals a few likely losses (Nebraska, Penn State), a few likely wins (Eastern Illinois, Rice), and a whole lot of toss-ups. The coaching changes at Indiana and Minnesota have injected a lot of uncertainty into those games, and Boston College, Army, and Iowa are sure to be hard fought games no matter what. But, by the end of the Penn State game, we'll be able to tell if this is a legitimate team headed for a good bowl game, or just another rerun.] 

Stat to make you look smart: In 2010, Dan Persa set a Big Ten single season record by completing 73.5% of his pass attempts. He also set a Northwestern record for passing efficiency, at 159.0.


This week...

MONDAY | Northwestern Cocktail Party Preview

TUESDAY | Point/Counterpoint

WEDNESDAY | 4th and 3


FRIDAY | Keeping the Enemy Close - Rival Blogger Interview