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Persa's numbers simply amazing
By Lindsey Willhite | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 9/5/2010 9:00 PM

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What can Dan Persa possibly do for an encore?

In his first career start, Northwestern's junior quarterback set the school's single-game record for completion percentage with at least 20 attempts.

Persa completed 19 of 21 passes (90.5 percent) for 222 yards and 3 touchdowns in the Wildcats' 23-21 win at Vanderbilt on Saturday night.

His first incompletion was a short pass knocked down at the line by a blitzer. His other was a perfectly thrown wheel route into the end zone to Sidney Stewart, but Vanderbilt cornerback Eddie Foster made a terrific play to bat it away.

Persa's pass-efficiency rating of 226.42 ranked eighth nationally on college football's opening weekend, but he ranked highest among those who faced a BCS foe.

From Northwestern's perspective, Persa's passing ought to open up more room for its struggling running game when the Wildcats face Illinois State in Saturday's opener.

The Redbirds, ranked No. 22 in the preseason Football Championship Subdivision polls, defeated Central Missouri 55-54 in their first game.

While Persa rushed for a game-high 82 yards against Vanderbilt, NU's three running backs combined for 51 yards on 26 carries.

Starter Arby Fields, who missed much of fall camp with a shoulder issue, finished with minus-7 yards in 10 tries.

"I want to run the ball," Fitzgerald said on his WGN 720-AM postgame show. "I don't care who runs it ... we've got some guys dinged up and we'll look at some things.

"We had some single-man breakdowns (on the line) and some things that should've popped. It's our first game ... and it looked like our first game. We've got a lot of work to do."

Hindsight is 20/20: As Illinois' coaching staff reviewed Saturday's 23-13 loss to Missouri, Ron Zook and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino wondered if the team's playcalling stunted its momentum at the outset of the second half.

The Illini led 13-3 at halftime but managed just 19 yards and 1 first down on their first five second-half possessions.

"(The Tigers) crowded the box and put as many guys up in there as they could," Zook said Sunday. "They made it hard that way. And just talking with Paul a little bit, we probably got away a little bit from some of the things we were doing in the first half.

"We probably should have stuck with those things and made them stop us before we tried other things."

Circumstantial evidence suggests the Illini didn't deviate too much - especially to start each half.

Illinois opened the game with Mikel Leshoure's inside runs balanced by Nathan Scheelhaase keepers and bootleg passes.

To start the second half, Illinois opened with two Leshoure power runs before trying a Scheelhaase bootleg on third-and-6. He never got the chance to throw the pass because a lineman whiffed his block for a 7-yard sack.

The stat: Northwestern's victory at Vanderbilt gave the Wildcats 9 non-conference road wins against BCS schools over the last 25 years.

Alas, that number dwindles to 4 wins (1985 Missouri, 1995 Notre Dame and 2003 Kansas) if you remove hapless Duke from the equation.

Illinois has 4 non-conference road wins over BCS schools during the same stretch: Syracuse (2007), California (2001), Louisville (1999) and USC (1989).

The Illini went to a New Year's Day bowl all of those seasons except 1999. Their only nonconference road game this year is Dec. 3 at Fresno State.