- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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EVANSTON, Ill. -- When Northwestern's leadership council convened for its regular Monday meeting, coach Pat Fitzgerald decided to mess with quarterback Dan Persa.
Persa had started Northwestern's previous eight games, displaying superb accuracy (74.4 percent completions, second nationally), efficiency (162.7 quarterback rating, ninth nationally) and toughness (team-high 360 rush yards, 6 TDs) in leading the Wildcats to a 6-2 start. And though he sustained a concussion late in Saturday's win at Indiana, Persa showed no lingering symptoms and was on track to make his ninth consecutive start this week at Penn State.
Or so he thought.
"I asked if I should start [backup] Evan [Watkins], just so you don't get too excited," Fitzgerald said.
Persa is from Bethlehem, Pa., about 170 miles from State College, and grew up going to Penn State football games. His mother and older sister both are Penn State alums. It's not a stretch to assume, even in jest, that Persa might be a little too hyped up Saturday.
So how did Persa respond to Fitzgerald's fake challenge?
"He looked at me like he wanted to fight," Fitzgerald said.
Persa allegedly has a sense of humor -- more on that later -- but when he's on the field or in Northwestern's football complex, it's all business, all the time. This week has been different for Persa with the extra ticket requests and media interview requests from back home.
But by 3:30 p.m. Saturday, he'll be locked in, just like he is for every game.
"Danny's best strengths are his intensity, his focus and his will to win," Fitzgerald said. "There's no question who our leader is. Like [former Northwestern coach Randy Walker] would say, he's just not Chuckles the Clown. He's a guy who's really focused and determined to help our team win and I don't see any negative in that.
"He's having the time of his life, there's no doubt about that."
Persa confirms that he's having a ton of fun this year, even if he doesn't look like it.
Persa disputes that last part.
"These guys [his teammates] know I joke around behind the scenes," he said, "but when I'm in a game, I'm not cracking jokes. ... I don't know why I get this, people tell me I don't smile enough. I guess I'm playing to the persona."
Persa grew up rooting for Penn State because of his family ties but always showed more interest in great players like former Nittany Lions star Larry Johnson.
"They had a rough stretch when the peak of my fanhood would have been," Persa said. "And in high school, you get caught up in recruiting, so you can't really be a fan of one team."
Persa shined in the Pennsylvania high school ranks, becoming the first player in state history to record 2,000 pass yards and 1,000 rush yards in a season. He earned first-team all-state honors and was named the 4A Associated Press Player of the Year as a senior in 2006. He also was the MVP of the Big 33 All-Star game, in which he led Pennsylvania to a win against Ohio.
Despite those accolades, Persa didn't get much interest from Penn State during the recruiting process.
"We probably should have been a little more aggressive in our approach to him," Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno said, "but we felt there were some other people around who had a little bit more potential. ... We really didn't give it the kind of effort that his ability deserved."
Was Persa surprised?
"Maybe a little bit, but you can't really control that stuff," Persa said. "Recruiting's recruiting and I tried to take the personal stuff out of it and looked for the best fit."
He found it at Northwestern, where he has become the first three-time member of the team's leadership council.
Persa has made a seamless transition to the starting role this fall, completing at least 75 percent of his passes in five games and attempting 92 passes before his first interception.
His intense approach also seems to be paying off.
"I take winning and losing pretty seriously," he said. "I demand a lot of myself and a lot of my teammates."
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