Chicago Colleges: Dan Persa

Spring QB race breakdown: Northwestern

February, 27, 2014
2/27/14
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Nine Big Ten programs will feature true quarterback competitions this spring, and we're taking a closer look at the candidates, the circumstances and the stakes of each race. First up: Northwestern.

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern had grown accustomed to two things every season: a bowl trip and development at the quarterback position.

Neither, however, happened in 2013. The Wildcats missed the postseason for the first time in six years, largely because of an inconsistent offense that rarely found a rhythm in the passing game. A two-quarterback system that had worked well in 2012, when Northwestern won 10 games, backslid because of injuries and other factors.

The Wildcats had more interceptions (9) than touchdown passes (8) in Big Ten play, and their completion percentage, typically a strength, dipped to just 60.5 in league games. Northwestern finished 67th nationally in pass efficiency.

After a 5-7 season, competition is the overriding theme this spring, including the quarterback spot, even though Northwestern welcomes back Trevor Siemian, who has 3,461 pass yards the past two seasons.

"If we're playing this Saturday, he's our starting quarterback," coach Pat Fitzgerald said of Siemian. "He's our most experienced and successful quarterback, but I know that Zack [Oliver] and Matt [Alviti] and Christian [Salem] are going to compete. That's just the way it is."

[+] EnlargeTrevor Siemian
Byron Hetzler/USA TODAY SportsTrevor Siemian is an experienced quarterback but he will face competition to be Northwestern's starter.
It appears to be a three-man race between Siemian, Oliver and Alviti, who appeared in that order during team drills Wednesday as Northwestern went through its first spring workout. Siemian clearly has the edge. If he can boost his completion percentage and show greater decisiveness after taking too many sacks in 2013, he should be the starter Aug. 30 against Cal.

The goal for Siemian?

"Total command of the offense," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "Every year a guy plays in this offense, [the ball] gets quicker out of his hand, and the game slows down even more. I intend for that to happen with him, and I think it will."

Siemian also is healthy after battling a bone bruise on his heel for much of Big Ten play. He sustained the injury Oct. 12 at Wisconsin, struggled to plant on his throws and only recovered fully for the finale, when he completed 70.5 percent of his passes and threw for a career-high 414 yards and four touchdowns in a win at Illinois.

The 6-3, 210-pound Siemian completed 68.2 percent of his passes in five games before the injury and just 52.4 percent between the Wisconsin game and the Illinois game.

"If you look at healthy Trevor, it's [the Illinois] game, early in the season and then what you saw the previous two years," Fitzgerald said. "When he was not 100 percent, unfair to him, it wasn't as successful as any of us would have wanted."

Siemian admits he didn't handle the injury as well as he wanted, but he finished well and, according to the coaches, responded well in the winter program.

Although Northwestern has used a two-quarterback system for all or part of the past three seasons, Fitzgerald and McCall would prefer to see one player separate himself. McCall always tailors the offense around the quarterback's skill set.

If Siemian wins the job, Northwestern could employ a pass-heavy scheme like the one it used from 2007-2010 with C.J. Bacher, Mike Kafka and Dan Persa. If Oliver, a junior, or Alviti, a redshirt freshman, prevails, Northwestern likely would maintain a sizable option element, like it did when Kain Colter called signals.

Alviti hopes he can build on what Colter brought to the offense.

"With the option game, that's going to be a big role for me, doing what Kain did in the past," Alviti said. "I've got a lot more arm strength, can throw a lot better than Kain can. He's a great quarterback and he's going to have a great career in the NFL, but he's going to be playing receiver.

"I can throw on the run a little bit more."

All three quarterbacks are working on their leadership skills. Alviti attributes much of the offense's struggles in 2013 to "a lack of leadership," which Siemian doesn't dispute.

"We had no one to go to on offense," Alviti said. "Everyone would agree with that. No one really stepped up and was the guy. That's one of the main things the quarterbacks need to do."

The quarterbacks will operate behind a line that never truly clicked last year, in part because so many players sat out spring practice with injuries. The line is healthy this spring, and Fitzgerald described the competition level as "night and day" from 2013, noting that lineups could change on each play.

Northwestern returns experience at wide receiver (Christian Jones, Tony Jones), tight end (Dan Vitale) and running back, where 2012 All-Big Ten selection Venric Mark returns after missing most of last season with leg problems. Miles Shuler, a transfer from Rutgers, adds another weapon on the perimeter.

After a season of injuries, poor play and a truncated playbook, Northwestern's offense could course-correct in 2014. Siemian wants to be the one pulling the strings.

"As a quarterback, you're the guy, so it's directly on your shoulders," he said. "I'm working to be the best leader I can for this offense. Not that I didn't last year, but this year, it's even more of an emphasis."

Offseason to-do list: Northwestern

January, 16, 2014
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The offseason is here, folks, and we're taking a look at what each team must do in the long months ahead before the games begin again in late August.

Up next: the Northwestern Wildcats.

1. Establish an identity on offense: An injury-plagued unit never got on track last season, finishing 10th in the Big Ten in scoring (26.2 points per game). The playbook definitely shrunk without standout running back Venric Mark, who is expected to receive a fifth season of eligibility and return this fall. Mark adds to an already strong stable of backs, but the team's most experienced quarterback, Trevor Siemian, undoubtedly is a pocket passer. Does Northwestern continue with a two-quarterback system (Siemian and Zack Oliver or Matt Alviti) or stick with one guy? Does it return to the pass-first scheme that proved effective in 2008 and 2009 or the run-pass mix that worked in 2012? These questions and others must be answered in the coming months.

2. Solidify the offensive line: After several years of progress, the group took a step back last season, allowing 36 sacks, the second-highest total in the Big Ten. Northwestern must establish chemistry earlier and build some depth before fall camp rolls around. The potential good news is everyone returns, including veteran center Brandon Vitabile. There should be plenty of competition throughout the offseason to fill the other four spots and build some depth the Wildcats lacked in 2013. If Siemian is the starter, he'll need better protection, as he lacks the mobility of recent Wildcats signal-callers like Kain Colter and Dan Persa.

3. Bolster the defensive tackle spot: Defense really could be Northwestern's strength in 2013, as the Wildcats should have their deepest group in the secondary in recent memory, as well as Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis at linebacker. Three speed rushers return at defensive end, but the tackle spot is a bit cloudy after opponents averaged 167.7 yards rushing per game against Northwestern last fall. It will be important to keep Sean McEvilly healthy and find others around him like Chance Carter, Greg Kuhar and C.J. Robbins. Coach Pat Fitzgerald talked about getting stronger up front after a disappointing 2013 season, and the defensive tackle group certainly must respond.

More to-do lists

Wildcats aim for another Lincoln revival

November, 1, 2013
11/01/13
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Nebraska's Memorial Stadium isn't an ideal place for a visiting team to revive its season.

The Cornhuskers are 396-117-13 all-time on their home field with 44 consecutive winning seasons there and a 34-7 mark under sixth-year coach Bo Pelini. Northwestern comes to Lincoln, Neb., on a four-game slide, winless in Big Ten play and simply trying to inch closer to bowl eligibility after a miserable month of October.

So why could Saturday's game be exactly what the Wildcats need? Because they've done it before.

Northwestern came to Lincoln at 3-5 in 2011, a season that also began with high hopes before veering off track. Like this year's team, the 2011 Wildcats dealt with key injuries on the offensive side, including a constant will-he-play-or-won't-he distraction involving quarterback Dan Persa, who had ruptured his Achilles' tendon the previous season.

Just when Northwestern's streak of bowl appearances seemed over, the team put it all together in Lincoln, as quarterback Kain Colter spurred Northwestern to a 28-25 win. The Wildcats ended up winning their next two games to become bowl eligible.

[+] EnlargeKain Colter
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesQB Kain Colter and the Northwestern Wildcats have to shake off the frustration of their four-game losing streak.
Northwestern hopes for a similar revival Saturday afternoon against a Nebraska team also reeling after a 33-24 loss at Minnesota. Senior linebacker Damien Proby said Monday that the 2011 win in Lincoln will be brought up before Saturday's game kicks off.

"We can't go back and fix our past mistakes," Proby said. "The end goal right now is to go 1-0."

To get back on track, Northwestern must get back to what it has done in the past: win the turnover battle, limit penalties and finish drives. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald said the team has beaten itself in three of the four losses, especially on offense.

Northwestern has had eight turnovers in its four Big Ten losses, including two fumbles in Iowa territory that loomed large in last week's 17-10 overtime loss to the Hawkeyes. The Wildcats actually had been somewhat loose with the ball during nonconference play, committing six turnovers but surviving because the competition wasn't as strong.

Penalties also have been an issue, as the Wildcats have been flagged more than their opponent in three of their Big Ten losses. An illegal block penalty on superback Dan Vitale late in regulation at Iowa loomed large as Northwestern appeared to be going in for the game-winning score.

"You look at some of the penalties of aggression," Fitzgerald said. "I don't think there's a coach in the country that gets upset with guys trying to play hard and trying to play physical. But the other ones are unacceptable, and we've been pretty darn disciplined around here.

"It's unfortunate that a couple times, we haven't done that."

Northwestern also has struggled to finish drives. The Wildcats had nine possessions reach Ohio State territory in their Big Ten opener, but only three ended with touchdowns. They failed to score a touchdown against Wisconsin, had just two touchdowns against Minnesota and just one against Iowa. Although Northwestern leads the Big Ten and ranks second nationally in red-zone scoring (30 scores in 31 possessions), its red-zone touchdown ratio isn't nearly as strong (18 of 31 possessions).

"Quite frankly, two-thirds of our football team is playing well enough for us to win," Fitzgerald said. "We've got to become more consistent offensively, and we've got to score more touchdowns. If we do that, we'll be fine. You’ve just got to keep grinding and doing what you do. The formula works.

"We're just on a journey with some bumps in the road right now."

Saturday, that journey reaches Lincoln, where Northwestern hopes to once again get back on course.

Why Northwestern's 2-QB system works

March, 25, 2013
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Many college football coaches, moonlighting as expert mathematicians, subscribe to the equation that two quarterbacks actually equals zero quarterbacks.

Others who attempt to use quarterback rotations end up with stagnant offenses. Quarterback competitions can be beneficial, but they also often divide locker rooms and lead to transfers. There are rare cases when a two-quarterback system works, and Northwestern appears to have found the formula.

The Wildcats won 10 games last season while rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian at quarterback. Although Colter started 12 of the 13 games and finished second on the team in both carries (170) and rushing yards (894), Siemian had more completions (128), pass attempts (218) and pass yards (1,312).

The offense wasn't a juggernaut -- 42nd nationally in scoring, 64th in yards -- and the rotation caused a midseason identity crisis, but Northwestern worked through it to have its most successful season under coach Pat Fitzgerald.

Both Colter and Siemian return for the 2013 campaign, and the bar has been raised.

"I believe we have two quarterbacks who can lead us to a Big Ten championship," Fitzgerald told ESPN.com before spring practice.

Why does Northwestern's two-quarterback system seem to work when many others fail?

It starts with acceptance.

As recent history shows, playing two quarterbacks is more of a necessity than a luxury in Northwestern's offense. The team has used multiple starting quarterbacks in each of the past three seasons and four times in the past five.

The nature of Northwestern's spread offense, which requires the quarterback to run and exposes him to injury, makes it essential to have multiple options.

"We'll always have to play our No. 2 quarterback no matter what because [the starter] is going to get dinged up," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "It's going to happen."

No player understands this more than Colter, who burned his redshirt late in the 2010 season because star quarterback Dan Persa ruptured his Achilles' tendon. Colter opened 2011 as the starter because of Persa's injury and shared time with Persa before rotating with Siemian last fall.

Colter's unique skill set -- he recorded 43 receptions in 2011 and might be the team's top receiver and best overall athlete -- increases McCall's flexibility at the quarterback spot. Siemian, meanwhile, has the stronger throwing arm of the two.

"It’d be stupid to say he’s not going to play," Colter said, referring to Siemian. "I think we both showed that we’re both going to play this year. It’s been a two-quarterback system ever since I’ve been here. Do I want the opportunity? Yeah. And I’ve had the opportunity in games where I’ve been the only quarterback, but I also feel at some point, I'm one of the best receivers we have on the field and one of the best running backs, so we have to get me in different areas."

Another key to the rotation is the strong friendship between Colter and Siemian. They both arrived at Northwestern in 2010 and studied the playbook together. Both were on track to redshirt before Persa's injury, which thrust Colter into the fire.

Siemian backed up Colter at times during the 2011 season before moving into more of a co-starter role last fall.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Siemian
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsTrevor Siemian, who passed for 440 more yards than teammate Kain Colter last season, says the two-quarterback system can flourish at Northwestern.
"We're two pretty unselfish guys," Siemian said. "A lot of times at places, I’ve heard you get a quarterback competition or you get two guys buying time, and that kind of divides the team in two. We're all in this together. That's just part of the culture here as a program. It's not like Kain and I are that special, but we're all going for a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl."

Added Colter: "We've been through this whole thing together, all the offensive changes, all the quarterback changes. He's always helped me out and I try to help him out in any way that I can."

Colter's and Siemian's skills seemed to complement each other well for much of 2012.

As Northwestern transitioned to more of a run-based offense, Colter and running back Venric Mark shined in the zone-read game, and Colter's scrambling skills converted numerous third downs. Siemian showed off his arm on downfield throws and threaded the ball into tight windows. And while Colter didn't play nearly as much receiver because of the injury risk, he and Siemian connected nine times for 131 yards in a win against Indiana (Colter also had 161 rush yards and four touchdowns as a quarterback in the game).

"He’s one of our better receivers when he lines up out there, so for me, selfishly, I like it," Siemian said. "But then again, he's so dangerous when he lines up at quarterback."

Colter is working strictly as a quarterback in spring practice, but the door hasn't been closed to him playing other positions in the fall.

"We need him to get better at playing quarterback," McCall said. "As time goes on, there's always going to be a possibility of he and Trevor playing together on the same snap. That puts pressure on defenses. We can change some things up, they don't know actually what’s going on, it simplifies what they do. There's always going to be that opportunity as we go forward."

Colter's flexibility can keep defenses off balance, which Northwestern struggled to do with its rotation midway through the 2012 season. Offensive production dropped off in early October as Colter handled most run plays while Siemian was brought in for obvious third-and-long passing situations.

In late October, Colter questioned the unit's identity in an interview with ESPN.com, saying Northwestern had to fully commit to an option-based attack. Several days later, Colter and Mark combined for 328 rush yards in a win against Iowa.

"We know exactly who we are," Fitzgerald said. "The bottom line is we want to win, and we're going to do what’s best for the team first. Fans want to say, 'Why don't we throw it better with Kain, and why don't we run it better when Trevor’s in there?' Keep talking all you want, but the bottom line is we won the game. It's one of those situations where you want to play to guys' strengths, but you also don't want to be predictable.

"That's where the balancing act is."

There's also a balance with leadership that Colter and Siemian intend to reach in 2013. Colter, a co-captain in 2012, almost certainly will retain the title as a senior this fall.

He made his desire clear in a recent interview, saying, "No matter where I’m at [on the field], I'm going to be the leader on this team."

It's not an affront to Siemian, who doesn't take it that way.

"I'm a quarterback, so it'd be foolish for me to say I'm not a leader," Siemian said. "But Kain's a tremendous leader. He's done well leading our offense, but I have a leadership role on this team, too."

The Big Ten hasn't had a team with a true quarterback rotation win a league title in recent years. Northwestern hopes to change that this fall.
Brady Hoke/Mark DantonioGetty Images, US PresswireBrady Hoke and the Wolverines square off against Mark Dantonio and the Spartans on Oct. 20.
During the course of spring practice, Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett visited 11 of the 12 league schools, getting an up-close look at the players and coaches who will shape the 2012 season.

Now it's time for them to share their thoughts on what they saw and learned this spring, and you can follow along as they exchange emails. Check out the Leaders Division exchange here. They now turn their focus to the Legends Division.

Adam Rittenberg: Let's take a look at what I believe to be the stronger division in 2012. You spent a lot of time in the Mitten State last month, and while you didn't gorge yourself like you did in America's Dairyland, you got the money quote of spring ball from Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who said, "We're laying in the weeds. We've beat Michigan the last four years. So where's the threat?" How spicy is the Michigan State-Michigan rivalry getting, and how good do you think these two teams will be this season after visiting both campuses?

Brian Bennett: Oh, there was some serious gorging going on at Zingerman's in Ann Arbor and Sparty's in East Lansing. Good thing there's only one spring practice session per year.

Anyway, I went into the spring thinking Michigan and Michigan State were the two strongest teams in the league, and I didn't see anything to change my opinion. While the Wolverines are more focused on Ohio State and even Alabama, they know they have to end their losing streak against Michigan State. And the Spartans take serious pride in that four-game run while bristling at all the offseason accolades thrown toward Brady Hoke's team. Oct. 20 can't come soon enough, as far as I'm concerned.

If the two teams played right now, I'd definitely take Michigan State. Dantonio has done a terrific job of developing depth on both lines and all over the defense. There's not a deeper team in the Big Ten, and the Spartans' physical play has given Michigan fits. The Wolverines still need to figure some things out in the trenches, especially on the defensive line, but that's one area where Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison excel. I believe these two teams will be neck and neck all year for the Legends title.

Of course, there's another team lurking in the division, and that's Nebraska. You went to Lincoln this spring, and it sounded like the Cornhuskers are feeling mighty ambitious this season. Do they have the necessary tools to back up their lofty goals?

Adam Rittenberg: It was interesting to see a team openly discuss the national title, Brian, especially in a league like the Big Ten. Huskers safety P.J. Smith even went so far as to say a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl championship would be "kind of disappointing." That's bold. Nebraska would have to skip a step or two to reach that point, but I can see where the confidence stems from. There's a greater comfort level between players and coaches in Lincoln, and also between the coaches and what they face in the Big Ten. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck was candid about the difficulty of preparing for so many new opponents, particularly since Nebraska's offensive and defensive systems are a little different from what we see in the rest of the league.

Quarterback Taylor Martinez received good marks from the coaches, and his focus on footwork could translate into a more consistent passing attack. Beck certainly wants to be a bit more balanced, and Nebraska returns pretty much everyone at wide receiver and tight end. We often hear the cliche that it's all about the quarterback, but it holds true with Nebraska. If Martinez actually makes strides as a passer -- he'll be operating in the same offense as the starter for the first time in his high school or college career -- the Huskers will put up points this fall. But after watching Martinez last season, it's fair to have some doubts about No. 3.

The defense expects to exploit a schematic advantage we heard a lot about last season but didn't see much on Saturdays. I like coordinator John Papuchis, and Bo Pelini made two good staff additions in D-line coach Rick Kaczenski and secondary coach Terry Joseph. They're all about details and accountability, and they believe they'll be able to replace star power with greater depth in certain areas. Nebraska also should be strong in special teams. Do the Huskers have a unit better than Michigan State's defense? Not right now. But Nebraska could end up being the division's most complete team by season's end.

Getting back to Michigan State and Michigan. Both teams lose tremendous leaders from 2011 (Kirk Cousins, Mike Martin, Jerel Worthy, Joel Foreman, David Molk, Ryan Van Bergen). Who do you see filling those roles this year?

Brian Bennett: That's a good question, and one that will have to be answered this summer. For Michigan State, Andrew Maxwell impressed me as a guy who can lead in a similar way as Cousins did; he'll just have to play well at quarterback and battle through adversity. The Spartans have some seniors on defense who can lead, like Anthony Rashad White and Johnny Adams, but they also have some highly respected juniors in Max Bullough and William Gholston.

But they are replacing some very valuable leaders, just as Michigan is doing. Denard Robinson has worked on becoming more vocal and sounded like a different guy in interviews this spring. There's no question he has the respect of his teammates. Craig Roh and Jordan Kovacs seem like natural leaders on defense, and offensive tackle Taylor Lewan says he wants to take on that role as well. But leadership can't be forced, and it remains to be seen if either team can find such strong captains as guys like Cousins and Martin were.

[+] EnlargeJames Vandenberg
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa quarterback James Vandenberg threw for 3,022 yards and 25 touchdowns last season.
Speaking of question marks, I feel like Iowa and Northwestern are two of the bigger mystery teams in the league. Both have talent and potentially potent offenses, but they'll also need some players on defense to rise up out of the shadows. What did you take out of your visits to Iowa City and Evanston this spring?

Adam Rittenberg: Let's start off with Iowa, which underwent some major changes this spring with a new offensive coordinator (Greg Davis), a position coach promoted to defensive coordinator (Phil Parker) and several more assistants shuffling, arriving or being promoted. The players seemed to embrace the changes, and coach Kirk Ferentz basically said the team needed a fresh start even though he didn't want to lose his previous coordinators. There's a lot of excitement about Davis' offense, which will be more up-tempo than what we've seen in the past from Iowa. Quarterback James Vandenberg really seems to get it, but will he have enough weapons around him to execute? The running back curse struck again this spring with Jordan Canzeri's ACL injury. Iowa needs young and/or unproven players to step up there, and wide receiver isn't a deep group. It'll be a big summer for Keenan Davis.

The feeling I had coming out of Evanston is that Northwestern will be a younger team but potentially a better one. The Wildcats say goodbye to an accomplished senior class that featured some outstanding players like quarterback Dan Persa. But was it the most talented group? I don't think so. Northwestern has improved its recruiting efforts in recent years, and the team could begin seeing the benefits this year. There are a lot of new faces at spots like defensive back and defensive line. I was impressed with cornerback Nick VanHoose and end Deonte Gibson. The wide receiving corps should be one of the Big Ten's best, even if Kyle Prater isn't eligible until 2013. The Wildcats might not have many familiar names at receiver, but they boast incredible depth there. This team still has question marks -- secondary, pass rush, running back, quarterback -- but the talent level is getting a bit better.

Neither of us made it up to Minneapolis this spring, but we both talked with Gophers players and coaches. What was your sense of the second spring under coach Jerry Kill?

Brian Bennett: We swear it's nothing personal, Gophers fans. Both of us would have enjoyed a trip to the Twin Cities, but the schedule just didn't work out.

Anyway, I did sense more confidence from the Minnesota players and coaches we interviewed. That's not surprising, given that it's the second year for Kill's staff and more familiarity almost always brings a better comfort level. MarQueis Gray really started to come on late last season and appears to have made strides as a passer. He could be one of the league's top playmakers this year. Overall, the Gophers look to have a little more talent this year, thanks to some junior college imports, youngsters who got experience last year and Troy Stoudermire coming back at cornerback. The defense should have more speed, though it remains undersized. The big question for me is who will emerge as weapons alongside Gray, especially at receiver.

But I think that, with a manageable nonconference schedule, Minnesota has a chance to win five or more games this year and it will be much more competitive in Big Ten play than it was early last season. The Legends Division looks more balanced top to bottom than the Leaders and should be fun to follow all year.

Wildcats optimistic despite recent slide

April, 10, 2012
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EVANSTON, Ill. -- Pat Fitzgerald doesn't deny the hard evidence, but he also feels there's more to Northwestern's case.

Yes, the Wildcats have seen their wins total drop in each of the past three seasons, from nine in 2008 to eight in 2009 to seven in 2010 to six last fall. After back-to-back 5-3 marks in Big Ten play in 2008 and 2009, Northwestern has seen its league record flip in each of the past two seasons.

It doesn't take a mathematics major at Northwestern to see where things are going and ask the question: Has the program lost momentum?

"You can nitpick everything you want, but there has never been more positive momentum in the history of our program," Fitzgerald told ESPN.com. "If you're going to choose one thing to make it be whether or not you have momentum, that's unrealistic. But we've got to win football games and we've got to finish games better than we did a year ago.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Reid Compton/US PresswireNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald remains confident that his program is on the right track.
"The program's definitely getting better. You can analyze that one area of wins and losses, which obviously I understand is critically important, but the difference between one or two games is not very much. We could have easily had six wins when we won nine. There's such a fine line."

It's Fitzgerald's job to look at the entire picture, and he notes some of Northwestern's recent accomplishments: four consecutive bowl appearances for the first time in program history; the winningest departing senior class in the program's history; a team GPA of 3.14; a 2012 recruiting class rated by many as the best in Fitzgerald's tenure. The school is also working on a facilities plan that could be a game-changer for the football program, which lags behind most of its Big Ten brethren.

Still, college football is a bottom-line business, and if Northwestern can't reverse the won-loss trend, its bowl appearances streak will end this season.

"Have we achieved our goals? Absolutely not," Fitzgerald said. "Are we hungry to do that? Absolutely. Are we working diligently to tweak the areas we need to improve? Absolutely."

Northwestern will try to make upgrades with a younger roster -- only 11 total starters return on offense and defense -- but quite possibly a more talented one. The team must fill several gaps, none more significant than Dan Persa's at quarterback, and hopes to do so by having what it believes to be stronger recruiting classes begin to pay dividends.

It's no secret the defense needs help after backsliding sharply in the past year and a half. Since a 6-2 start in 2010, Northwestern has surrendered 30 points or more 11 times. Last fall, the defense couldn't get off of the field (114th nationally in third-down defense at 50 percent conversions), fell victim to explosion plays and generated barely any pressure (106th in sacks, 104th in tackles for loss).

"You've got to make 'em earn everything," defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said. "If they make great throws and great catches, you can live with those things. But we had some situations last year where we busted a coverage because of communication or we didn't have anybody back there. They didn't have to make the perfect throw or the perfect catch.

"We can execute better, no question."

The challenge is to improve communication and execution with a group heavy on youth. Although Northwestern returns all three starting linebackers, it will use young players in all three sections of the defense, including redshirt freshman cornerback Nick VanHoose, sophomore linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo and redshirt freshman defensive end Deonte Gibson.

Consider that Ibraheim Campbell, a redshirt sophomore safety who led the team with 100 tackles in 2011, is viewed as the clear leader of the secondary.

Communication has been a focal point this spring, as players are taking extra measures to ensure they're on the same page.

"When I yell out a call to the D-line, the only way I know they got it is if they tap their hip," linebacker David Nwabuisi said. "We started forgetting about little stuff like that [in 2011]. Now when I make a call, if the D-lineman doesn't tap his hip, I keep on yelling at him until he does. Same thing with DBs to linebackers."

Communication shouldn't be an issue for Kain Colter, who started three games at quarterback in place of the injured Persa last season and evolved into arguably the Big Ten's most versatile offensive weapon (654 rush yards, 673 pass yards, 466 receiving yards, 18 total touchdowns). Colter is the best athlete to call signals at Northwestern since the team implemented the spread offense in 2000, but to maintain the program's recent run of top-shelf quarterbacks, he needs to become a more polished passer.

The junior emphasized velocity and arm strength during the winter -- he tore the labrum and the biceps in his throwing arm as a high school senior -- and expects to execute the high-percentage passes that drive the Wildcats' offense this fall. He'll have plenty of weapons as Northwestern boasts most likely its deepest receiving corps ever, even if USC transfer Kyle Prater can't play right away.

"My timing's getting a lot better, my arm strength's a lot better," Colter said. "I feel like I can make all the throws on the field. That hasn't been a problem this spring."

Northwestern loses four-year starters on both sides of the ball, an NCAA record holder in Persa, two-time All-Big Ten honoree Jeremy Ebert and Drake Dunsmore, the inaugural winner of the Kwalick-Clark Award as the Big Ten's top tight end. Fitzgerald likened the personnel turnover to a shift change at a factory and acknowledges the team dynamic is different.

Given the declining wins total, though, some new blood might not be a bad thing, and the coaches feel the team's overall talent level is on the uptick.

"There's better talent than people think," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "The cupboard's not bare. We've got guys who can play football. They just haven't had the experience yet.

"It's just their time. Let's go play."

NU wasn't satisfied with 2011 results

March, 1, 2012
3/01/12
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EVANSTON, Ill. – Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald will soon have plenty of things about the upcoming season on his mind.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswirePat Fitzgerald is glad his Wildcats are motivated to improve after last year's losing season.
Beginning with Saturday’s first day of spring practice, Fitzgerald will start evaluating a trio of quarterbacks who are competing for the starting spot Dan Persa left behind, and that’s just one of the positions the Wildcats need to fill for 2012.

But first, Fitzgerald reflected on a 2011 season that didn’t go as well as he expected.
Northwestern went 6-7 overall and 3-5 in the Big Ten and lost to Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. It was the Wildcats’ fourth consecutive bowl appearance, but also their first losing season since 2006.

“I think last season when you look back -- to get to another bowl game, to keep the consistency going there, we’re proud of that,” Fitzgerald said in his office on a recent afternoon. “We’re proud of the fact we can now say we’ve done some things that have never happened.

“But have we achieved the goals that we put on the board that we discussed as far as being champions? No. You look at ways to get there, and you get back to work.”

(Read full post)

Northwestern tackles next QB project

January, 26, 2012
1/26/12
9:24
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Spring practice at Northwestern kicks off March 3, and for the third time in the past four years, the Wildcats don't return their starting quarterback.

Recent history shows this isn't cause for panic. Mike Kafka went from a guy who threw a backward pass in an ugly loss at Indiana in 2008 to a second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2009 who led the league in passing. Dan Persa went from a run-first, little-used backup who completed 58.8 percent of his passes in 2009 to an All-Big Ten signal caller who became the NCAA's all-time leader in completion percentage.

Northwestern is hoping for a similar one-year jump from the three signal callers who will compete for the starting job in spring ball.

[+] EnlargeKain Colter
AP Photo/Mary SchwalmNorthwestern's Kain Colter started the first three games of the 2011 season
"We've all been here before," offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mick McCall recently told ESPN.com. "It's good that they've followed some people who have been productive. But it's college football all over again.

"You restart and away you go."

Kain Colter played a more significant role for Northwestern in 2011 than Persa did in 2009 or Kafka did in 2008. Colter started the first three games for the injured Persa and appeared in 10 games as a quarterback, leading Northwestern to a win at Nebraska. He completed 55 of 82 pass attempts for 673 yards with six touchdowns and one interception. He also was Northwestern's top rushing threat -- he recorded team-highs in carries (135), rush yards (654) and rush touchdowns (9) -- and excelled as a receiver, recording 43 receptions for 466 yards and three touchdowns.

As the numbers show, Colter is the best athlete Northwestern has had at quarterback since implementing the spread offense in 2000.

But he also faces some obstacles to make a similar jump as his predecessors.

"No. 1 is obvious," McCall said. "I'm sure people talk about it, and Kain knows it: ball speed."

Colter tore the labrum and the biceps in his throwing arm as a high school senior. The injury likely turned away Stanford, the school to which he had committed, and limited his throwing.

Although the shoulder is better now, Colter at times lacks the necessary zip on his passing, which can hamper a Northwestern offense that relies on short, quick passes and accuracy.

"I don't know if it's ever going to be the same, but it's definitely getting close," Colter said of the shoulder. "I see it in flashes. Some throws, I have a lot of velocity, and some throws, I don't. Just trying to be more consistent with it. When it's there, it really is there. I feel like timing and ball placement is more important than arm strength, just being able to make all those throws."

Despite Colter's versatility, the plan is to have him play quarterback full-time during the spring. Sophomore Trevor Siemian and redshirt freshman Zack Oliver also will compete for the starting job. Siemian and Oliver both lack Colter's explosiveness as athletes, but arm strength isn't an issue for either player.

McCall notes that Persa's ball speed wasn't great as a younger player and that he built it up by getting stronger overall in the weight room. Colter has put on 10 pounds since the end of the regular season and hopes to be in the 205 range by the fall.

"He's much stronger now than he was," McCall said. "I don't feel like that’s going to be an issue, but he's got to go out and do it, too. He's got to do a great job of anticipating breaks and taking control of the offense, not just being a playmaker but distributing the ball to our playmakers."

McCall's chief mandate to Colter and the other quarterbacks involves leadership. Persa was the first player named to Northwestern's leadership council in each of his four seasons.

"They're the changing of the guard, and who is going to step up?" McCall said. "I hope all of them step up and make the decision real, real tough. I hope all of them become leaders of our football team."

Colter is ready to answer the bell. He took losses personally in 2011 and absorbed much of the blame for the team's shortcomings.

Despite a disappointing season, he sees enough talent on the roster and is spending the winter "trying to get everybody to reach their full potential, trying to get 100 percent of the effort all the time."

Can Northwestern continue its track record of quarterback development in 2012? Given the team's issues on defense, it's critical.

"It's always going to be different," McCall said, "but we have confidence that our system works.With the guys right now who are in the room, I have a lot of confidence that we’re going to be pretty darn good at the quarterback spot."

Three local players added to Shrine Game

January, 11, 2012
1/11/12
3:13
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Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa and offensive tackle Al Netter and Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish have been selected to play in the East-West Shrine Game.

Persa became the NCAA’s all-time leader in completion percentage this season. He completed 218 of 297 passes for 2,376 yards with 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions this season.

Netter started 52 games, including 44 straight, at left tackle for the Wildcats. He was an Outland Trophy candidate and was named to the AFCA Good Works Team.

Harnish was one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the country this season. Harnish finished 15th in the nation in rushing with 1,379 yards, leading all quarterbacks. He also ran for 11 touchdowns and passed for 28 touchdowns against six interceptions.

The game will be held at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Jan. 21.

2011 Northwestern review: Wait continues

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
4:04
PM CT
Kain ColterEric Francis/Getty ImagesQuarterback Kain Colter piled up 229 yards of total offense in Northwestern's upset of Nebraska.
Northwestern’s 2011 football season began with plenty of optimism, but ended with disappointment. Here’s a look back on the year that was for the Wildcats.

The 2011 season in nutshell: Northwestern had high expectations before the season. The Wildcats were coming off another bowl appearance, a winning season and had plenty of talent, including senior quarterback Dan Persa. They believed they could shock some and compete for the Big Ten title. The Wildcats’ season began to unravel just before their conference schedule. Northwestern was upset by Army on Sept. 17, the beginning of a five-game losing streak. The Wildcats fought back with four wins, including one at Nebraska, and became bowl eligible. With a chance to redeem its season in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas on Dec. 31, the Wildcats fell to Texas A&M 33-22 and suffered their first losing season since 2006. Northwestern’s bowl drought carries on to a 64th year.

[+] EnlargeDan Persa
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireSenior QB Dan Persa leaves Northwestern as the NCAA's all-time leader in completion percentage.
Team MVP: Senior quarterback Persa and sophomore QB/wide receiver Kain Colter share this honor. Persa endured plenty of adversity since rupturing his Achilles tendon last season. He had an up-and-down year while trying to overcome setbacks, and he was still among the conference’s best quarterbacks. He completed 218 of 297 passes for 2,376 yards with 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He ended his career as the NCAA’s all-time leader in completion percentage. A lot was asked of Colter this season, and he came through in most situations. He passed for 673 yards and six touchdowns, rushed for 654 yards and nine touchdowns and caught 43 passes for 466 yards and three touchdowns.

Defensive MVP: Senior safety Brian Peters led the Wildcats with five interceptions and was second on the team with 92 tackles. He also had four tackles for loss and nine passes defended.

Unsung hero: For whatever reason, senior wide receiver Jeremy Ebert often gets overlooked. The Big Ten coaches didn’t even vote him on the all-conference second team this season despite having 75 receptions for 1,060 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Highest point of the season: Northwestern was a massive underdog heading into its Nov. 5 game against No. 9 Nebraska. Led by Colter who replaced an injured Persa, the Wildcats pulled out a 28-25 win in Lincoln. Colter ran for two touchdowns and passed for one in the second half.

Lowest point of the season: After leading 24-20 in the third quarter, Northwestern was outscored 14-0 by Penn State in the game’s final 16 minutes in a 34-24 loss. The Wildcats' fifth straight loss dropped them to 2-5 on the season.

Quote of the year: “They all stink. That's real eloquent, I know. They're all awful. They're all equally up there.” -- Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald after losing the bowl game.

Looking ahead: Expect Northwestern to give itself a long look in the mirror this offseason while the Wildcats try to figure out what went wrong this season. Their focus has to be on improving a defense that allowed too many home-run plays in 2011. There could also be a quarterback competition between Colter and redshirt freshman Trevor Siemian, and Northwestern will try again to find a consistent lead running back.

Northwestern still can't take next step

December, 31, 2011
12/31/11
5:43
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Few programs felt as good about themselves as Northwestern did prior to the season.

The Wildcats had reasons to be, too. They were coming off their third consecutive bowl appearance and third winning season. It had been five seasons since their last losing one. That was in their rear-view mirror.

Northwestern was consistently competing in the Big Ten and had become a true threat to the conference’s big boys. Gone appeared to be the days the Big Ten could worry about Northwestern only once in a while.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald also believed his last couple of recruiting classes were stacked with more talent than the program had ever seen. The future was thought to be even brighter.

To add to the bubbly feeling, Fitzgerald had signed a long-term contract, and the yearly concerns of another program swooping in and stealing him away were put to rest. His sideline attire would consist of purple through the 2020 season. The assumption was Northwestern had its man, and its man was only going to continue leading the program to higher ground.

[+] EnlargeKain Colter
Brett Davis/US PresswireKain Colter ran for one touchdown and threw for another in the Wildcats' loss to the Aggies.
The team’s confidence was certainly beaming heading into the 2011 season. With a proven quarterback, depth at wide receiver, an experienced offensive line, some talent returning on defense and optimism for a few newcomers, the Wildcats felt they could shock the country this season. They believed they were as good as anyone in the Big Ten and could realistically compete for the conference’s title.

Of course, that wasn’t to be.

In a season where Northwestern was expected to take that next step forward, which included -- more than anything -- winning its first bowl game since 1949, the Wildcats lost their footing and stumbled backward.

As a result of Saturday’s 33-22 loss to Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, the Wildcats dropped to 6-7 on the year, suffering their first losing season since 2006. The bowl loss was their ninth consecutive, and the toy monkey, which wore No. 63 to symbolize the program’s 63-year bowl drought and was going to be destroyed if Northwestern had won Saturday, lived to see another day, actually another year.

Sure, in the context of Northwestern’s history, the 2011 season was an accomplishment. The Wildcats put on a Heisman campaign for Dan Persa. They were competitive in every game. Only one of their seven losses was by more than two touchdowns. They pulled off one of the year’s bigger upsets by defeating Nebraska in Lincoln. In the end, they reached their fourth consecutive bowl game.

And, yes, Northwestern had opportunities to defeat everyone it lost to. The Wildcats were tied with Army Black KnightsArmy in the fourth quarter. They led Illinois by 18 points in the second half. They led Michigan by 10 points at halftime. They were tied with Iowa after three quarters. They led Penn State by three points in the third quarter. They cut Michigan State's lead to seven points early in the fourth quarter. They even trimmed what was once a 23-point, fourth-quarter lead by Texas A&M to eight points.

But talking about plays and games gone wrong, injuries (Persa’s most notably) and the overall idea of what could have been of the 2011 season if everything had fallen in place is what you hear out of desperate programs wanting recognition without achieving real results. Knowing Fitzgerald, that’s not what he’s after.

Fitzgerald doesn’t want Northwestern to be measured by past program standards. Competing for a Big Ten championship every 10 seasons doesn’t make up for having a handful of losing seasons in between. Fitzgerald’s goal has been to create a program which wins year after year and never has to worry about losing seasons.

There are still plenty of reasons to believe Northwestern is headed in that direction. Northwestern’s youthful talent was on display in the bowl game. Sophomore quarterback Kain Colter, redshirt freshman defensive back Ibraehim Campbell, sophomore wide receiver Rashad Lawrence and sophomore return specialist Venric Mark are among the potential future all-conference players. The upcoming recruiting class should also bring optimism.

But right now, hours after Northwestern’s season ended with more losses than wins, something that hasn’t happened since Fitzgerald’s first year as head coach, it’s difficult for the Wildcats and their fans to look past 2011. It was a year that began with as high of hopes as there’s been in Evanston, but ended with a 63-year-old monkey having the last laugh.

Instant analysis: Texas A&M 33, NU 22

December, 31, 2011
12/31/11
3:43
PM CT

After a rough season that included the death of teammate Joey Villavisencio last week and the firing of coach Mike Sherman, the Aggies got a bowl win. It's been an emotional year at Texas A&M, but it will end in fine fashion with a good win over Northwestern.

The Aggies did it without top rusher Cyrus Gray, too. Gray missed his second consecutive game and the final game of his career with a stress fracture in his shoulder that he suffered early in a win over Kansas.

Here's some instant analysis.

How the game was won: Texas A&M was the better team and proved it for the first three quarters, but like we've seen all year, the team swooned in the second half. This time it came in the fourth quarter. The Aggies survived via two huge third-down catches from Uzoma Nwachukwu and Jeff Fuller to keep the ball out of Northwestern's hands in the final minutes. This season, the Aggies blew leads of 18 (Arkansas), 17 (Oklahoma State), 14 (Missouri), 13 (Texas) and 10 (Kansas State). They avoided a sixth loss in extravagant fashion this season with a clutch late drive to close out the Wildcats.

Turning point: Trailing 7-3, Texas A&M scored on its final three drives of the first half, highlighted by a vertical, 26-yard touchdown catch by Jeff Fuller from Ryan Tannehill. The Aggies took control and the Wildcats weren't able to get within realistic reach the rest of the game. The Aggies scored the first 10 points of the second half for a 30-7 lead.

Player of the game: A&M receiver Ryan Swope. Swope continued his tear this season with eight catches for 105 yards and broke a few tackles on a 37-yard catch-and-run to set up an early touchdown that put the Aggies ahead for good. Fuller had a huge catch late to seal the game, but Swope kept the A&M offense humming in the first half while it built the big lead.

Unsung hero: Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter. He spelled what looked like a gimpy Dan Persa and ran for 65 yards and a touchdown in a nice performance.

What it means: One epic bowl losing streak ended while another lives on. Northwestern had lost five bowl games going back to 1949 and made it a sixth. Texas A&M ended its eight-game bowl losing streak dating back to 2001. The Northwestern streak was represented on the sidelines by a monkey wearing a No. 63 jersey, the number of years since the Wildcats won a bowl.

Well wishes: Coryell Judie. The Aggies' kick returner and cornerback finally returned to full health against Texas on Thanksgiving after missing a handful of games with a hamstring injury. However, he suffered a fractured wrist during his final collegiate game. It's a rough break for a huge talent, but he'll hear his name called next April in the NFL draft.

Record performance: With his first field goal midway through the first quarter, kicker Randy Bullock broke Texas A&M's single-season scoring record set back in 1927. The Lou Groza Award winner surpassed Joel Hunt's record of 128 points and finished the season with 139 points after making three field goals and three extra points on Saturday.

Mailbag: NU football coach Pat Fitzgerald

December, 28, 2011
12/28/11
10:39
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Northwestern Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald answered readers’ mailbag questions this week at ESPNChicago.com as he prepares his team for the Dec. 31 Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas against the Texas A&M Aggies in Houston.

This is a special group of seniors, and I suspect they’re going to do anything and everything to win. With recent key injuries on a young defense, the offense is going to need to play outstanding. Without giving your game plan away, can we expect any new wrinkles to Mick McCall's play calling on offense for this bowl game? – Kevin, Chicago

Pat Fitzgerald:
I think you were right with the last part of the question. Sorry, I’m not going to give you any inside information. We’re going to do everything we can to win.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Reid Compton/US PresswirePat Fitzgerald is preparing his Wildcats for the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas on Dec. 31.
Are we going to see future Northwestern games at Wrigley Field? Preferably with two useable end zones. – Michael Carroll, Chicago

PF:
As we talked after the game, we felt like it was a really special opportunity to showcase Northwestern to Chicago. I would never say never, but I think those are discussions that are much higher than myself. Ryan Field is our home field. We like playing in Evanston and in front of our fans. We’ll see what opportunities present themselves in the future.

What has been the reason for your high-percentage completion rates for your quarterbacks in recent years with players like Brett Basanez, C.J. Bacher, Mike Kafka and Dan Persa? – Kevin Jarosz, Mt. Prospect, Ill.

PF:
First of all, Mick McCall and our offensive staff are taking advantage of what each player does best and playing to their strengths. Most importantly, they go out and execute. The quarterback gets credit for that, but the line gives protection and the receivers get open.

Coach Fitz, in building the Northwestern program, what have you found to be the "identity" that Northwestern wins with? What is it that Northwestern Football does consistently better than its opponents to win football games? Love watching your teams, would love the opportunity to see some game film or practice. Hopefully I am in your shoes one day. – Mike Davidson, Springfield, Mass.

PF:
Thanks for the kind words. I think it starts with recruiting character young men for your program. We follow a blueprint. The cornerstone is bringing in character guys that are going to compete on and off the field.

What can you say about Jeremy Ebert and his playmaking abilities and all he has done for the program you run? – Alec, Chicago

PF:
He’s been spectacular. He was a high school quarterback that we converted to wide receiver. The way he’s worked on and off the field to prepare. He does a great job with the tape. He does a great job in the weight room. He’s a young man who has paid the price and put himself in a position to be a playmaker.

How are you preparing to face Texas A&M? – Jordan Herald, Wintersville, Ohio

PF:
It’s a big challenge in all three phases, Jordan. Offensively, they have a lot of weapons. They’re dynamic. They’ve scored a lot of points. Defensively, they’re a 3-4 team. They do a good job of attacking you. Their kicking team has a ton of players. We’ve worked our butt off. We’re going to try and play our best game of the year on Saturday.

Coach Fitzgerald, just moved to Wrigleyville and can't wait to get up to a game next year. Love hearing you on Waddle & Silvy. Who are some younger guys to watch during the bowl game that you are expecting to make a big impact next year? – Bob E., Chicago

PF:
We played three true freshmen this year. Those guys have done a good job -- Treyvon Green at running back, Christian Jones at wide receiver and Jack Konopka at tight end. They’re probably the ones you’ll see the most.

Hey coach, what would you say to a team that is interested in drafting Dan Persa? Go Cats! – Anthony Bertolini, Chicago

PF:
They don’t ask me. They make their own evaluations. It’s pretty easy to comment on a young man who is as strong of a leader as we’ve had in our program. He’s a first-to-show and last-to-go kind of person. He’s a winner. He’s won a lot of games for us. He’s overcome a ton. He’s always professional. He handles himself like a professional now. They’re going to get a guy who can compete and is very smart and understands the game.

Coach, I know you are mostly concentrated on winning a bowl game right now, but I feel as though you will be asked something like this come spring quite often, so I would like to know your opinion on the development of guys like Trevor Siemian or Zack Oliver, who seem to be more of a passing attack vs. Kain Colter who can handle himself at QB but seems to be a bigger threat on the ground. Basically, next season do you see Northwestern as a pass-the-ball-around and try-to-work-underneath with Siemian/Oliver or run-the-option and hit-one-deep with a guy like Colter playing QB?

PF:
I think they’ll all compete. I’ve been impressed with how Kain has handled the whole year and how he’s progressed and been a quarterback, and he’ll remain a quarterback. Trevor and Zack have done a nice job. Trevor has gotten in a few games. Zack has progressed and improved. I think we’re in a good position. It’s going to be tough to replace a guy like Dan, but a few years ago we went through the same thing.

ESPNChicago.com: Anything else you’d like to add?

PF:
I just appreciate our loyal fans and their support everywhere we’ve gone not just this year, but the last five years. There are a bunch of them getting down to Houston. For those who can’t make it, they can go to NUSports.com or call 888-Go-Purple and donate tickets to the game to the less fortunate in the greater Houston community or military personnel in the area. It’s the season for giving.

Persa has left his mark on NU program

December, 21, 2011
12/21/11
1:39
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EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern senior quarterback Dan Persa realized his Heisman Trophy campaign was going to be grounded even as others prepared for it to take off this season.

While Northwestern went forward in the fall with a Heisman campaign, which included a billboard on the Kennedy Expressway and a mailed set of dumbbells for voters, Persa knew as early as the summer his right Achilles’ tendon wouldn’t be strong enough for him to play the first few games of the season.

[+] EnlargePersa
Bruce Thorson/US PresswireDan Persa will try to lead Northwestern to its first bowl win since 1949 on Saturday in the Meineke Car Care Bowl against Texas A&M.
The problem was no one else was aware of that, and he wasn’t telling anyone either.

He and Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald fielded questions nearly daily prior to the season about Persa’s rehab, his recovery timetable and whether he would be ready for the season opener. Neither let the secret out. They didn’t guarantee anything, but they also never hinted that there was no chance Persa would be playing against Boston College in the season opener.

Playing that deception game wasn’t always easy for Persa.

“Having people think I was going to be ready for the beginning of the season when I knew I wasn’t was tough,” Persa said after a recent practice in preparation for Saturday's Meineke Car Care Bowl. “Kind of answering those questions about that was tough. I never put any pressure on myself because I pretty much knew when I was going to come back. The same time you can’t leak any information to the other team to keep them on their toes.”

Yet, Persa was fine with the upscale Heisman Trophy campaign Northwestern put together for him even if he realized he wasn’t going to live up to those expectations.

“Whatever was best for the team,” Persa said. “They said it would give more exposure for Northwestern, get our name out there. I said it’s fine. I don’t care.”

Persa put the team first often this season, and that wasn’t easy either. Persa wanted to take every snap of his senior season, especially after having missed the final three games of last season due to his Achilles’ tendon injury.

But it wasn't to be. If his foot wasn’t feeling right and he was going to do the team a disservice by being out on the field, he pulled himself from the game. And instead of feeling sorry for himself on the sideline, he forced himself to remain a leader and help backup quarterback Kain Colter.

“I think that leadership is what really jumps out to me,” Fitzgerald said. “Going back to early in the year, the Boston College game where he can’t play, he’s the first guy in Kain’s ear coming off the boundary. To the way he played out at Nebraska, played really well, then got dinged up. At the end of the day to have that kind of leadership, ‘I could go out there and maybe play, but I’d hurt the team,’ is pretty impressive.

“I think he learned patience through that injury. You hate to see that or have that ever happen because of an injury. I think he’s handled it as well as anyone can. He does a good job of worrying about what he can control and listening to who he needs to listens to.”

Persa admitted he still struggles to be patient. But a berth in a bowl game helps. Because Northwestern was able to recover from its 2-5 start to the year and earn a fourth consecutive bowl berth, Persa has been given another month of rehab for his Achilles’ tendon and one final game.

Persa is finally a year removed from surgery, and that’s made a huge difference.

“When I’m doing drills to get myself faster, I feel a lot better,” Persa said. “I’m not at 100 percent yet, but it gets better every day. I’m starting to trust it a lot more when I’m doing rehab. I’m running well, and I feel good moving around. I saw this as a pretty big opportunity for me to kind of take some steps in my rehab and get in the best possible shape for the game.”

Persa could be closer in the bowl game to the type of quarterback he was last season. In 2010, he was mobile and accurate. In 2011, he was still accurate, but less mobile and rarely went looking for yards on the run. He compiled 71 rushing yards and one touchdown this season to his 519 yards and nine touchdowns last season.

Persa’s accuracy is what generated talk of a Heisman campaign before the season and has put him in an elite category of quarterbacks. He was 222-of-302 passing, a 73.5 completion percentage, for 2,581 yards, 15 touchdowns and four interceptions last year. He has completed 193-of-260 passes (74.2 percentage) for 2,163 yards, 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions this season.

If Persa throws 19 passes -- whether he completes them or not -- in the bowl game, he’ll become the NCAA’s all-time leader in completion percentage, surpassing Colt Brennan’s record of 70.4 percent. Persa would already own the mark if he hadn’t played special teams in 11 games as a freshman. He needs the 19 passes to become eligible.

“You never play for records,” Persa said. “You play to win the game. If those things happen, they happen. But it would be great to me because I really worked hard on that in my career. I take a lot of pride in being accurate, being an accurate quarterback and taking care of the ball.”

More than an opportunity to break a record, the Meineke Car Care Bowl against Texas A&M is a chance for Persa to close out his career with a bowl victory. It’s something that has eluded his senior class and the program since 1949.

“The last game pretty much sets the mark for us whether we’re successful or not,” Persa said. “Last game of the year you can’t hold anything behind you now. You got to pull out all the stops and just lay it out on the field. It’s a fun feeling playing like that.”

Whatever result does come of the bowl game, Fitzgerald believed Persa had already left his mark on the program.

“The year hasn’t gone the way I think any of us would have wanted for us,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s just stayed the course and been so resilient. I can single out one play, but I think that would minimize what he’s had to overcome. It hasn’t been easy, but his attitude has been tremendous. He’s done a great job leading.

“I think his legacy will long last this year. I think it’ll be shown in the way our quarterbacks perform in the future.”

Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas

December, 5, 2011
12/05/11
6:11
PM CT
Texas A&M (6-6) vs. Northwestern (6-6)

Dec. 31, noon ET (ESPN)

Texas A&M take from Big 12 blogger David Ubben: The Aggies are in a state of turmoil. They have no coach and the players are understandably shaken up about it. Mike Sherman was loved around College Station, and his super classy exit press conference showed all the reasons why. Ultimately, Texas A&M's much-ballyhooed second-half failures ended Sherman's tenure as the head Aggie. The numbers are well-known by now, but still staggering. They tell the story of how a preseason top 10 team with as much talent as any in the Big 12 ends up at 6-6. Five halftime leads of double digits and another by nine against rival Texas. All were losses.

That doesn't change the talent on the field. Running back Cyrus Gray will likely return from injury, as will quarterback Ryan Tannehill with top targets Ryan Swope and Jeff Fuller. They'll play with an offensive line that has some legit NFL talent, a credit to Sherman's recruiting acumen as a coach with an offensive line background. Texas A&M is already assured of leaving the Big 12 with a bitter taste en route to the SEC next season, but a bowl win might help ... if only a little bit.


Northwestern take from Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern will play in a bowl for a team-record fourth consecutive year, but the Wildcats are still looking for that elusive postseason win after a disappointing 2011 campaign.

As players and coaches often are reminded, Northwestern hasn’t won a bowl game since the 1949 Rose. The Wildcats have come close the past three seasons, particularly in the 2010 Outback Bowl, but they’ve fallen short each time. While Texas A&M’s motivation might be a question mark after its recent coaching change, Northwestern will be geared up.

The good news is that unlike last year, Northwestern will have top quarterback Dan Persa on the field for its bowl. Although Persa didn’t look nearly as dominant this season as he did in 2010, he still led the Big Ten in passing (240.3 ypg) and completed 74.2 percent of his passes with 17 touchdown strikes and seven interceptions. Persa and the offense will need to put up points as Northwestern’s defense has struggled mightily this season and in the recent bowl losses. The Wildcats will be without top cornerback Jordan Mabin against Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill and his talented group of receivers.

This will be a virtual road game for Northwestern in Houston, as Texas A&M fans will pack Reliant Stadium. But Pat Fitzgerald’s teams often play better on the road than at home, as they are 14-8 on the road since the start of the 2008 season.

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