Previewing the 2011 Northwestern Wildcats

Northwestern caught the attention of college football by opening the season with five straight wins. Most impressive was a game against Michigan State, ranked #8 at the time.  The Wildcats led 17-0 late in the first half, and still led 24-14 in the fourth quarter. But a fake punt sparked the Spartans’ comeback, which was sealed by a diving touchdown grab with two minutes to go. Heartbreaking, to be sure…but the Wildcats moved onward, led by quarterback Dan Persa.

Persa’s touchdown pass with 1:22 left in the game gave Northwestern yet another victory over Iowa (that’s five out of the last six years) but also ended Persa’s season. He tore his Achilles tendon celebrating after the play and had to be hauled off the field. Northwestern ended up losing their next three games, including a 70-23 loss at Wisconsin to close out the regular season.  If your cable system carries ESPNU, you might have caught Northwestern losing to Texas Tech in the “Ticket City Bowl”.

All expectations for Northwestern start with the health of Dan Persa. Persa was a true dual-threat for the Wildcats: completing over 73% of his passes for 2581 yards and fifteen touchdowns (and only four interceptions) plus 519 yards and nine touchdowns more rushing. He was the second leading rusher on the team despite not playing in the final three games of the season. That 73.5% completion percentage led the nation and shattered Darrell Bevell’s Big Ten record (67.8% in 1993). And when he went down, boy was he missed.

Sophomore Evan Watkins finished the season, but struggled to complete 51% of his passes for just 378 yards, two touchdowns, and five interceptions. Persa is supposed to be fully healed, but can Persa perform at that same incredible level in 2011? Over one-third of NFL players who suffer an Achilles rupture don’t return to the game, and those that do play at a dimished level.

So it’s unrealistic to expect the same Persa back, but even a diminished Persa is still better than most other quarterbacks…and certainly better than anybody else Northwestern has. Iif the Wildcats still depend on Persa for 75% of their offense this season, they’ll be in serious trouble.

The Wildcats top three running backs from 2009 returned in 2010, but after only rushing for 32 yards on 15 carries against Central Michigan, Northwestern turned to redshirt freshman Mike Trumpy and true Freshman Adonis Smith. Trumpy went on to lead the team in rushing with 530 yards and four touchdowns. Trumpy topped the 100 yard mark twice last season, breaking a 20 game streak for the Wildcats without a 100 yard rusher.

A wrist injury in the Illinois game ended his season, and Adonis Smith took over from there. Senior Jacob Schmidt scored four touchdowns in the first three games before rolling his ankle, forcing him to miss the rest of the season. A full season for Trumpy should be more productive for Northwestern this season.

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