Pinning Down Persa

Oct. 14, 2011

IOWA CITY, Iowa — The Twitter universe sees a likeness to Harry Potter. The college football world sees Harry Houdini.

Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa may have a slight physical resemblance to Daniel Radcliffe, an actor who plays the adolescent wizard Harry Potter on the big screen. On the Big Ten Conference big stage, Persa is a magician, escapologist and stunt performer.

And a first team all-conference quarterback.

“Dan Persa is an all-around quarterback,” UI defensive tackle Mike Daniels said. “He’s shifty, he can run, he’s accurate, he’s a smart football player. I wouldn’t say all this stuff if I didn’t remember it. Dan can run and he can play the game of football.”

Last season Persa completed nearly 75 percent of his pass attempts for 318 yards and two touchdowns during a 21-17 victory over the Hawkeyes in Evanston, Ill. He also carried the ball 14 times for 78 yards (with four sacks excluded) and scored the game’s first touchdown. His 20-yard scoring toss to Demetrius Fields with 82 seconds left in the game capped a 14-point fourth quarter for the Wildcats.

“He’s a very smart quarterback, he likes to use his feet, he’s very versatile,” UI linebacker Christian Kirksey said. “When you stay in coverage you still have to think about the quarterback scrambling. He’s a very good quarterback.

“We have to keep him in the pocket and make sure we keep him contained and stay in good coverage. We don’t want to leave any receiver open because he’s a very smart quarterback and he always finds ways to find receivers open, so we have to make sure we stay disciplined.”

Persa is no longer the quickest quarterback on the Northwestern roster. But he is still powerful and elusive. After completing the game-winning toss to Fields last season against the Hawkeyes, Persa jumped in celebration, tearing an Achille’s tendon. He missed the final three games of 2010 (all Wildcat losses) and the first three games of the 2011 season.

In his return against Illinois (38-35 loss on Oct. 1) and Michigan (42-24 loss on Oct. 8), Persa has averaged 227 passing yards with four touchdowns. Because of the injury, Persa remains in the pocket longer than he did as a sophomore or junior, and his rushing totals have suffered. In 18 attempts, he has lost a total of eight yards.

UI senior defensive tackle Thomas Nardo looks forward to the test of corralling Persa on Saturday in Kinnick Stadium.

“It’s exciting. He’s a real good quarterback. Everybody saw him last year and he did a lot of things against us, so it poses a good challenge for us,” Nardo said. “We know we have to work hard all week and prepare and we know that he’s going to be moving around and he can throw the ball, too.”

Persa relieved Mike Kafka in 2009 and rushed for 67 yards on 17 carries and completed 5-of-9 passes for 37 yards. His 4-yard touchdown pass to Drake Dunsmore in the second quarter provided the go-ahead points during a 17-10 Northwestern win in Kinnick.

Hawkeye quarterback James Vandenberg was thrust into emergency action on that early ’09 November afternoon in Iowa City. Both Persa and Vandenberg are scheduled to start Saturday.

“He’s a dynamic player,” Vandenberg said. “He makes a lot of plays throwing the ball and running the ball. He’s a real talented guy and I know our defense will have its hands full to stop him.”

The Hawkeyes (3-2 overall, 0-1 Big Ten) host Northwestern (2-3, 0-2) beginning at 6:01 p.m. (CT).