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Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Northwestern's Dan Persa right on target

By Adam Rittenberg

Dan Persa's 86.4 percent completion ratio so far this season doesn't surprise Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald sees this all the time from the Wildcats' junior quarterback.

Asked Tuesday if Persa passes the ball as accurately in practice as he does in games, Fitzgerald flipped through his notes from the team's workout earlier that morning.

Dan Persa
Dan Persa in the early national leader in pass efficiency with a rating of 212.1.
"We just got off the field and he threw for 92 percent in seven-on-seven," Fitzgerald said. "And in team [drills], he threw for 88 percent.

"So yeah, he's pretty consistent."

Persa opened the season by completing 19 of 21 passes for 222 yards and three touchdowns in a road win against Vanderbilt. He set a single-game team record for completion percentage (90.5 percent, minimum 20 attempts) and added 82 rush yards.

Last Saturday, Persa took a huge step back. He only completed 82.6 percent of his throws (19-for-23) in about a half of work against Illinois State.

On-target passing combined with five touchdown strikes and no interceptions has helped Persa lead the nation in pass efficiency with a rating of 212.1.

"It's just all about your confidence," Persa told me earlier this week. "Once it becomes second nature, you don't really think about making mistakes. You just think about getting the ball to [the receivers] as quick as you can and watch what they do with it."

Persa is only two games into his stint as Northwestern's full-time starter and entered the year with only 34 career pass attempts (20 completions). His fast start is linked to his ability to maximize the offseason, whether it was earning team awards for his weight-room prowess, working with former Northwestern quarterback Brett Basanez on his skills or leading voluntary workouts with his receivers.

Northwestern's spread offense is built around high-percentage passes, some of which coordinator Mick McCall considers the equivalent to run plays. Most of Persa's throws don't travel very far, but the execution needs to be there on both ends.

"Some are short, easy passes," Persa said, "but at the same time, we work really hard in the offseason and in fall camp to get our timing right. It's really showing right now."

Northwestern enjoyed similar accuracy with All-Big Ten quarterback Mike Kafka in 2009.

Kafka led Big Ten starters in completion percentage (64.8). He completed his first 16 passes against Syracuse, breaking a 47-year-old team record, and finished the game 35-for-42 (83.3 percent).

Persa has continued the pattern.

"I just try to make all the throws that I'm capable of," he said. "You're going to have some incompletions, just because sometimes you've got to throw the ball away or sometimes, you have to save yourself. I'm not really focused on making or missing passes as much as executing and getting the job done."

Fitzgerald said there's only one throw Persa would like to have back so far this season, a pass that sailed through the hands of a Vanderbilt linebacker and into those of Northwestern receiver Demetrius Fields.

So even when Persa messes up, he still completes the pass. Figures.

"He's managed it outstanding," Fitzgerald said. "I don't know if he could have done a better job in the first two games. ... He's a great fit to our offense. He can do everything: He can run, he can throw the quick game, he can throw on the move, he can throw the ball vertically.

"He's just the full package."