Northwestern built a preseason Heisman Trophy campaign around Dan Persa but then didn't have its star quarterback's services for the first three games of the season. Persa returned last week against Illinois and threw a career-high four touchdown passes, but he left the game early with some pain in his surgically repaired Achilles tendon. Persa has been cleared to play again this week at home against Michigan and hopes to get his 2-2 team its first Big Ten win.
I recently caught up with the Wildcats' incredibly accurate passer for our weekly Big Ten Friday Q&A:
First of all, and I think we're all looking forward to when we can stop asking this question, how's the foot?
Dan Persa: I'm feeling real good, a lot better than I did last week. So hopefully it will just keep getting better every week.
You revealed this week that you had a setback in June with your recovery. What exactly happened?
DP: I just kind of tweaked it a little bit, and I had to sit out a couple of weeks. It slowed down my progress a little bit. But it was fine.
Was it similar to what happened during the Illinois game last week?
DP: Yeah, but this summer I tried to push through it and it kind of got worse. So I was just like, "All right, this is the same thing that happened before. Let's just take it easy and not make it any worse." [The doctors] said it's fine and ready to go.
How was it getting back into your first game action in almost a year?
DP: It was good. The first couple of series, I was a little antsy in the pocket. But after that, once I settled down and got in a little groove, I thought I was really comfortable as far as what was going on. It felt like last year.
How tough was it to come out of the game and then see your 28-10 lead evaporate in a loss?
DP: I wanted to go back in there. At the same time, I didn't want to do any more damage to my leg. It was tough. We just have to close the game out so we don't have that feeling.
You guys have had that happen a few times in the last couple of years. Is there any thing you can point to as to why this team has blown some big leads in games?
DP: I think we've just had a couple of mental lapses, and then one thing leads to another. People have got to learn to respond a little bit better and not worry about what happened in the past. Just keep doing their job.
How difficult was it not being able to play for the first three games?
DP: It was tough. Obviously, I wanted to be out there, but I wanted to come back at the right time and be effective. I didn't want to come back early and not be effective and not be able to do a lot of things that I did in the Illinois game or last year. So it was tough, but I think I made the right decision.
What was your relationship like with Kain Colter when he took over the quarterback job?
DP: I tried to stay in his ear and talk about different stuff, different reads and different things to think about. Just trying to calm him down for the most part and let him have fun, because he's such an athletic player.
You guys played three of your first four on the road and now have Michigan at home. How excited are you for that opportunity?
DP: It feels like we haven't been home in forever. We're really excited and looking forward to being in front of our fans again.
Michigan is undefeated and ranked No. 12 but there are some questions how improved the Wolverines really are. What do you think about their defense when you see it on film?
DP: Their defensive coordinator came from the Baltimore Ravens, so they have a very advanced defense. They show you a lot of looks, a lot of different blitz looks, and they're a smart defense. It's going to be a good challenge for us, and I'm looking forward to it.
What are some keys for you guys to pull off the upset this week?
DP: Just do what we've been doing. We put up 35 points against a pretty good Illinois team and thought we could have done more. So keep doing what we're doing and keep executing the plays. We've got to be better on third down. We were really good in the red zone against Illinois, but on third down we were still below 50 percent. So we've got to pick that up.
With one loss already in conference play and this being a division game, how big is this week for you guys?
DP: I think it's huge. We've got to get back on track, and this being a division game makes it more important.
You came in last week and immediately established a good connection again with wideout Jeremy Ebert. What's the chemistry like between you two?
DP: I definitely think it's more of a tribute to Jeremy. He knows the game so well, and he paints a pretty good picture for me. Whenever I get in trouble, I try to look for him, and he's usually open.
With the whole "Persa Strong" Heisman campaign this summer, were you disappointed you didn't get a chance to capitalize on that or did you find the whole thing just a fun promotion?
DP: It was a little disappointing when the first couple of games went by [and I didn't play]. But I think it did its job in just getting the Northwestern name out there and getting people talking about Northwestern and hopefully coming to our game. So it was disappointing, but I wasn't really too worried about it. I was more disappointed that I couldn't play than that I couldn't go for the Heisman or whatever. Any thing that gets people talking about Northwestern is good.
Are you looking forward to getting through a whole game this week so you no longer have to answer questions about your health?
DP: Yeah, definitely. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.