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NO BIG TEN PLAYER MEANS MORE TO HIS TEAM THAN DAN PERSA DOES TO NORTHWESTERN. The All--Big Ten first-team selection was one of the conference's most efficient players in 2010, his first season as the Wildcats' starting quarterback. He completed 73.5% of his passes, threw only four interceptions, nearly led his team in rushing with 519 yards (second only to running back Mike Trumpy's 530) and was responsible for 24 touchdowns.
All that came before the Achilles tendon tear that ended Persa's season early. Moments after he tossed the game-winning touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter against Iowa on Nov. 13, Persa took a step forward, heard something pop and fell to the ground. That he had sustained the injury on a play in which he wasn't even touched was a cruel twist of fate for the do-it-all Persa, who often put Northwestern on his shoulders in 2010. He took more than his share of hits last season, between leading the team with 164 carries despite missing the final three games and being sacked 34 times.
"Even before I was injured, I was feeling beat up," says the 6' 1" senior from Bethlehem, Pa. "You don't realize how long the Big Ten season really is until you go through it. People told me that, but I thought to myself, I'm a strong kid. I've been beat up before; I'll be all right. I didn't even make it through 10 [games]."
Persa's road back has been even longer. He spent months in grueling, frustrating rehab after undergoing surgery last November. The whole experience showed him that he needs to stay in the pocket more and go through his reads. In turn the rest of the offense will have to establish a more consistent running game to help out their quarterback. The senior-laden offensive line, which has been maligned for giving up too many sacks, will also have to improve. But, ultimately, Persa has to protect himself.
"Sometimes I'd run just because I could, and I'd have success with it," says Persa, who averaged 19 carries a game in Big Ten play in 2010. "I watched how [former Ohio State quarterback] Troy Smith handled his senior season. He ran a lot as a junior, and then his game really evolved as a senior. That just comes with time. I'm just blessed to have another chance."
Smith won the Heisman Trophy during his senior season with the Buckeyes, and Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald thinks Persa is talented enough to be mentioned in the Heisman conversation.
The quarterback says he will be ready for NU's season opener on Sept. 3 at Boston College, much-needed good news to his team. "I don't know if there's a happier coach in the country," says Fitzgerald, "than I am to have a player like Dan Persa coming back."
Keeping Persa on the field is critical for the Wildcats. With him they were 7--3; they were 0--3 without him.
Fitzgerald doesn't want Persa to completely change the way he plays, nor will the coach make major changes to the way he runs his offense. He just wants his quarterback to play smarter.
"I hope he continues to play the same style he plays, and I think he will," Fitzgerald says. "He understands what he needs to do. He's a battler. He makes plays. That's Danny's style."