College Football Analysis: Don't Sleep on Northwestern

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Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa won’t be the first name that comes to most minds when considering this year’s Heisman Trophy candidates, and when asked to name a Big Ten quarterback most would probably refer to Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins, Michigan’s Denard Robinson or new Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson, but it was Persa who was the conference’s first team quarterback in 2010. (Wilson was the All-ACC Second Team quarterback from NC State last year.)

Persa, 6’1 and 210-pounds according to the NW athletic site, suffered an injury near the end of the win over Iowa last season and sat out the final three games as Northwestern ended the year 0-3 including the loss to Texas Tech in the TicketCity Bowl. He finished his season with 2,581 yards, 15 touchdowns and a 73.5% completion percentage. He threw just four picks all year and never more than one in a single game.

Persa is one of the nation’s most efficient passers, completing over 70% of his passes in seven of his ten games last season, and 75% or more five times including a 19/21 performance in the opener against Vandy. He probably won’t be a first round pick and Robinson and Cousins will get more Heisman hype than Persa, but that doesn’t mean he won’t face his fair share of lofty expectations.

Before the injury (officially a few minutes after the injury I guess), Northwestern sat 7-3 with two regular season games to go: a home date with Illinois and a road matchup with Wisconsin. Now, anything could happen when the variables are changed, but if Persa was playing in that Illinois game, I’m picking the Wildcats to win. Against Wisconsin in Madison? Not so much.

That means the ‘Cats could have finished 8-4 and would have been in much better shape for the bowl game against a pretty weak Texas Tech defense that finished the year 118th in pass defense—the Northwestern offense even managed 38 points against the Red Raiders without Persa. Consider that Northwestern should have won that home game against Purdue, and a 9-3 regular season wasn’t out of the question last year.

This year they’ll open on the road against a good Boston College team, but it’s a winnable game nonetheless if the Wildcats defense is able to stop running back Montel Harris and the ‘Cats offense does its job and controls the ball. The NW rushing defense struggled a year ago, allowing 185 yards per game, so that’s something to keep an eye on in the opener.

In the next week, a win over Eastern Illinois should be expected, and Northwestern is capable of beating Army in West Point the following week. Then comes the rematch with the Illini, this time in Champaign. The Illini return a good team that could be better than some think even with the loss of running back Mikel Leshoure and some key defensive pieces.

Denard Robinson will be hard to stop the next week and the ‘Cats are replacing some senior linebackers. There’s been optimism around the new bunch, though, and if they can step up and contain Robinson Northwestern has a chance at coming away with a quality win at home. The Michigan pass defense can’t be much worse than it was a year ago, but Persa should still see some nice numbers in this one.

Northwestern took down Iowa last season, but this time they’ll travel to Iowa City. There’s been some key losses on both sides of the ball, but talent is coming back and Iowa will pose the second straight roadblock for this team, and then there’s the home date with a Penn State team that is going to be better this year. The trip to Indiana should be a win, and home dates with Rice and Minnesota should be two more, but getting Nebraska in Lincoln and Michigan State at home to close the year will be challenging.

When you look at it, behind Persa and a very good receivers corps, at least five wins should be all but guaranteed (vs. Eastern Illinois, @ Army, @ Indiana, vs. Rice, vs. Minnesota), while there are several other winnable matchups—some more so than others—for this year’s ‘Cats (@ Boston College, @ Illinois, vs. Michigan, @ Iowa, vs. Penn State).

If Northwestern can come away with wins in at least three of the five winnable matchups mentioned above, and win the five games they’re supposed to, you’re looking at an 8-4 regular season or better. Don’t look now, but that could mean four straight winning seasons and bowl appearances for the ‘Cats.

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Danny Hobrock, is our College Football Editor and NCAA Football On-Air Personality. Danny's writing on College Pigskin has garnered national attention and has been critically acclaimed. You may email Danny directly @ [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @DannyHobrock