Persa, Watkins impress coach

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern's defense stripping and recovering the ball on the goal line during one of the final drives of Saturday's scrimmage pleased Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald.

On the other hand, the same play was disappointing as his running back fumbled the ball, and the offense was unable to score from a few yards out.

It was that kind of day, and it's what Fitzgerald expected from the team's first spring scrimmage.

"I didn't have officials and a game clock out there today for a reason," Fitzgerald said. "I kind of just wanted those guys to go out there and just play, kind of like you would in a back yard. Let's go play a little bit, see the good, see the bad, see the ugly and see the great, and let's learn from that and make next week better.

"I think way too many times we can put way too much stock in these early spring scrimmages. It's not fair to those guys. Some of these guys are just learning to line up. You say, 'Gosh, they've been playing football for a long time.' But they don't know our language and our terminology."

One of the positives that Fitzgerald did take out of the day was the play of his two quarterbacks -- Dan Persa and Evan Watkins.

Persa, who is expected to start next season as a senior, showed flashes of his ability to maneuver in the pocket and throw the ball. He completed 8-of-10 passes for 40 yards and ran for six yards. He threw zero interceptions and touchdowns.

"He looked comfortable," Fitzgerald said. "Danny really looked comfortable. Can he throw the ball a little bit better? Yeah, but I thought he had good comfort."

Persa agreed.

"I think for the most part we're coming along really well," Persa said. "I think you saw today for the most we took care of the ball, except for that one fumble. We ran the ball really well, and I thought our controlled passing game was really efficient today.

"I think from the first day to now we're so much far ahead than we were. I think just knowing your assignments, and the little things, the small protection things, the small changes in coverage that you try to switch and make adjustments so that the wide receivers and quarterbacks are on the same page with."

The first and second-team offenses moved the ball, but the defenses only allowed one touchdown on the scrimmage's 68 plays . The score was a 46-yard pass from Watkins to a wide-open Demetrius Fields.

Watkins threw 15-for-26 for 175 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. He also ran for 42 yards.

"I think Evan is growing," Fitzgerald said. "It's the first time he's been out there on his own without [offensive coordinator and quarterbacks] coach [Mike] McCall in his ear. I thought he handled it well."

Al Netter, one of Northwestern's returning offensive lineman, was just happy to be outside on the field playing in an actual game again.

"You could tell there were a few cobwebs out there, just getting that physicality back and that speed of the game back," Netter said. "Definitely days like today are good. You learn more on a day like today than you do on a regular practice day as far as playing in a real life situation.

"Today, you learn to just play fast. When you get to a live situation, you can't think as much. You got to learn from what you learned in practice all week and put it into the game situation, and you just got to go."

At running back, Stephen Simmons and Jacob Schmidt shared a majority of the carries. Simmons rushed for 47 yards on 10 carries. Schmidt ran the ball 14 times for 47 yards.

The quarterbacks hit a variety of wide receivers. Sidney Stewart (4 catches for 32 yards), Schmidt (3-13) and Fields (2-53) led the way.

Afterward, Fitzgerald was especially ecstatic about the game's officiating ... as he was the one calling the penalties.
"I thought it was awesome," Fitzgerald said. "It was probably the best officiated game we've had in a long time."

Northwestern will hold its final scrimmage on April 24, and it is open to the public.

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.