After the an exciting finish on the strength of Dan Persa’s arm, Jeremy Ebert’s hands and Vince Browne’s incredibly clutch sack, the Northwestern Wildcats upset the No. 13 Iowa Hawkeyes 21-17. While the victory came at great cost, it finally gave this Northwestern team a marquee win to resuscitate a floundering season.
Three things that dominated Saturday’s Wildcat heart-stopper:
1. Dan Persa
We could just stop there and every Wildcat fan would understand, but for a player so remarkable yet without much recognition, it’s well worth the exercise in spilling ink. Persa completed 32/43 pass attempts for 318 yards and two touchdowns as well as rushing for 50 yards ans a touchdown. His one interception came off a hard-luck bounce out of his receiver’s hands, but he accounted for each one of Northwestern’s scores.
Persa’s defining moment came in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter on his 20-yard pass to Demetrius Fields for the winning touchdown. Persa escaped the Iowa pass-rush for what seemed like the hundredth time before unleashing a desperate heave towards the end zone. While everyone in the Northwestern stands was jumping up and down for joy, however, Persa had fallen to the ground, injured en route to join his celebrating teammates. Later word came from the locker room his Achilles tendon had ruptured, a season-ending injury.
Dan Persa is this Northwestern Wildcats team, and his absence will be a gaping one. His play this season has gone so far beyond what seems physically possible from his 5’11” frame, and finally his superhuman effort proved costly. Where the Wildcats will go from here is anybody’s guess, but in his final Herculean effort of the 2010 campaign, Dan Persa should finally win the national recognition true Wildcat fans have been screaming for all year. Get well soon, Dan, and in the meantime we’ll get the “Persa for Heisman 2011″ bandwagon ready.
2. The second half woes come to an end
The second half has not been kind to Northwestern this season; two-score leads against Michigan State and Penn State have been blown in the final 30 minutes, and after the third quarter the result against Iowa seemed destined for a similar fate.
The Hawkeyes came out of the locker room with a purpose, and the Wildcats came out completely flat. The first Northwestern drive was killed by an illegal touching penalty, followed by a few killer rushes from Adam Robinson and a Ricky Stanzi touchdown pass giving Iowa the lead. A few plays later, Derrell Johnson-Koulianos was flying 70-yards into the end-zone on a throw from Stanzi. The Wildcats were done.
Then in the fourth, driving in Northwestern territory after Persa’s pick, Ricky Stanzi made his first real mistake of the afternoon, leaving a long pass to the end-zone with too much air under it, allowing safety Brian Peters to snag the interception and momentum inched Northwestern’s way.
For a team that has struggled to create turnovers all season, it was an incredible gift. An offense that had been flat for the duration of the third quarter rapidly came alive, sustaining two drives that completely wore down the Iowa defensive front. The offensive line had been solid all day protecting Persa from the fearsome Iowa end, Adrian Clayborn, but on the final two drives it was the pace of Fitz’s no-huddle offense that kept the Iowa blitzers at bay.
An 85-yard drive, culminating in Persa’s pass to Jeremy Ebert (once again incredibly solid with 6 catches for 60 yards and a couple of clutch first downs) brought the ‘Cats within a score, and Persa’s 91-yard masterpiece to take the lead completed the second-half renaissance. The defense, after allowing the early two touchdowns, regrouped and held the game together, especially on a bend-but-not-break series to close out the game against a desperate Ricky Stanzi. The collective fourth quarter effort pulled off yet another Northwester comeback win this year.
3. Maybe a sold-out Ryan Field isn’t such a good thing
Saturday’s game was the first sell out of the year for Northwestern, and while credit must be paid to the University’s comprehensive marketing program, the unsettling portion of the crowd cheering on the Hawkeyes should serve as a reminder of how far we have to go. The Hawkeye fans were numerous, boisterous, and occasionally downright offensive, and they stripped the Wildcats of their home-field advantage. The energy among the Northwestern supporters was certainly electric, but an offense simply should not have to deal with noise when they are playing at home. Hopefully, after five losses to the ‘Cats in six seasons, Iowa fans have learned their lesson and will stay home next time.
And to the gentleman next to me who saw Persa on the ground and said, “Hopefully a torn ACL,” you stay classy Iowa City.