Big Ten football roundup: Northwestern
It was a bunch of yammering on Pat Fitzgerald's Big Ten teleconference call. The names of most Northwestern players blend into the collective that is annually one of the Big Ten's most flumoxing outfits.
So, Drake Dunsmore this. Jeremy Ebert that. The collective. The blend. The Wildcats.
But then Fitzgerald woke everyone up.
"To have a Heisman Trophy candidate come back at quarterback for us is something that gives me a little bit extra sleep at night," Fitzgerald said.
Of course, the one Northwestern player everyone knows is quarterback Dan Persa, who, pound-for-pound, might be the best player in the Big Ten.
Fitzgerald will happily put the weight or the world on his QB, who accounted for 23 TDs and something like 70 percent of NU’s offense last season. Of course, he tore an Achilles against Iowa. Will that be healed? If it is, Persa could unleash 40 TDs on the Big Ten.
Persa has been shelved with the Achilles, which he injured coming down while making a leaping throw for the TD that beat Iowa. He remains ahead of rehab schedule -- of course -- and has targeted June 1 as his return.
When he does return, he'll walk into a trickle of Heisman talk that was started this spring by his coach.
"That's pretty cool," he said. "It's a pretty prestigious award and to be mentioned with that is a high honor. At the end of the day, it's out of my control."
Last season Persa completed 73.5 percent of his passes, a Big Ten record. He also set an NU record with a 159.0 efficiency, ninth in the country. Persa would be the first to tell you that he's not a one-man band.
For the Cats to make an appreciable jump in the Big Ten standings -- NU tied Michigan for seventh in the conference with a 3-5 mark -- they will have to develop a reliable running game and find some defensive replacements.
Mike Trumpy ended up leading the Cats with 530 rushing yards. He injured in NU's 45-38 TicketCity Bowl defeat to Texas Tech, but the 6-1, 205-pounder had made headway at running back this spring, with Adonis Smith also in the mix.
"He's been consistent, he's been physical, doing all that," Fitzgerald said. "We're still protecting his wrist just for precautionary reasons. I've been very pleased with the spring he's had."
On defense, Fitzgerald threw out a lot of names, most notably Niko Mafuli, a 6-3, 310-pound defensive tackle who had a sack and pass deflection in the Cats' spring game. Cornerback Jeravin Matthews could help solidify a secondary that finished 10th in the league last season.
Defensive end Tyler Scott (6-4, 255) could help take some pressure off the other end Vince Browne, a 6-5, 265-pound senior who led the Cats with seven sacks in 2010.
Mostly, Northwestern has Persa. In a lot of games last season, that was more than enough. The Achilles, nothing but a flesh wound. Persa is coming for you. Persa, Persa.
"I plan to be at the latest ready probably the end of May," Persa said. "Hopefully I'll be able to play a game by then. Having three or four more months is really going to be extremely helpful getting me back to where I was at my peak performance last year."
- Division: Legends
- 2010 record: 7-6, 3-5 Big Ten (lost 45-38 to Texas Tech in the TicketCity Bowl)
- Returning offensive starters (9): QB Dan Persa, RB Mike Trumpy, WR Demetrius Fields, SB/TE Drake Dunsmore, WR Jeremy Ebert, OT Al Netter, OG Brian Mulroe, C Ben Burkett, OT Patrick Ward
- Returning defensive starters (7): DE Kevin Watt, DT Jack DiNardo, DE Vince Browne, OLB Bryce McNaul, CB Jordan Mabin, SS Brian Peters, FS Jared Carpenter
- 2010 review: The Wildcats made it to a bowl game for the third straight season and their eighth consecutive bowl loss, a streak dating back to NU's 1949 Rose Bowl triumph. Persa set the Big Ten completion percentage record and pulled the Cats to bowl eligibility before suffering a torn Achilles tendon against Iowa. Wide receiver Jeremy Ebert led the Big Ten with 73.3 receiving yards a game. Strong safety Brian Peters was among the Big Ten's top tacklers with 8.2 a game. The Wildcats fell to Illinois at Wrigley Field, the first game played at the Friendly Confines since Harry Caray was clear-eyed and probably the last, with one end zone being declared unsafe because of the proximity to the Wrigley bricks.
- 2011 schedule: S3 at Boston College; S10 Eastern Illinois; S17 at Army; S24 OPEN DATE; O1 at Illinois; O8 Michigan; O15 at Iowa; O22 Penn State; O29 at Indiana; N5 at Nebraska; N12 Rice; N19 at Minnesota; N26 Michigan State
- Noteworthy: The Wildcats will go for four in a row, including three straight in Iowa City, on Oct. 15 in Iowa City. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is 4-6 against Northwestern. Iowa's last victory over the Cats came at Ryan Field in 2007, with QB Jake Christensen leading the way.
- Quotable: “We wanted to get our attitude back, and I believe we have. It’s been a real physical spring.” -- NU coach Pat Fizgerald.