What If? Dan Persa’s Achilles

WNUR Sports Online Content Director Cameron Songer (@CameronSonger) asks how Northwestern football would have fared in the past two years if Dan Persa never tore his Achilles.

In light of the recent buzz surrounding Northwestern football’s recruiting class, it might seem appropriate to do a “What If” that involves Northwestern signing a famous, top-5 recruit and bringing the program to new heights in his first season on campus. Oh, wait. I already did that for Northwestern’s basketball team.

Instead, let’s look at the career of one of the most successful Wildcats to take the field in recent memory. This player was just a two-star prospect in high school and rated #71 at his position by Scout.com, but he left Northwestern with an NCAA career record.

Dan Persa had led Northwestern to a 6-3 record in 2010, his first year as the starting QB for the Wildcats. On November 14, the Wildcats hosted #13 Iowa and trailed by 10 points at the start of the fourth quarter. Persa threw two touchdown passes in the final quarter, rallying the Wildcats to a 21-17 win, but he tore his Achilles on the final scoring play.

Persa would miss the rest of the 2010 season and the first three games of the 2011 season. A dual-threat quarterback before the injury, Persa’s mobility was hampered in his senior season of 2011, but he still managed to throw for over 2,300 yards and 17 touchdowns while completing over 73 percent of his passes. Although Northwestern lost in Persa’s final game (the 2011 Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas), Persa finished his career by breaking the NCAA record for career completion percentage (72.7 percent).

Jerry Lai/US Presswire

Jerry Lai/US Presswire

Any football career that results in an NCAA record is fantastic, but what if Dan Persa never tore his Achilles? How would Northwestern football have done in 2011? What about in 2012?

Northwestern lost its final three games of the 2010 season as Evan Watkins, a freshman at the time, stepped in to become the starting QB. The first two of those three losses came in blowout fashion to Illinois and Wisconsin and had much more to do with Northwestern’s defensive weaknesses than the play of Watkins at quarterback.

Even with Persa, the ‘Cats would still lose those two games, setting up a TicketCity Bowl matchup with Texas Tech. Without Persa, Northwestern lost by seven, but momentum swung when Texas Tech tried an onside kick in the third quarter while leading by three touchdowns. Northwestern rallied at the end of the game, but came up short. With the threat of Persa’s explosive offense, perhaps Texas Tech wouldn’t try the onside kick in that situation. More realistically, the presence of Persa would have kept the game closer throughout, but I still don’t see Northwestern winning that game. A final note on the last game of the 2010 season is that it functioned as a coming-out party for Kain Colter, a freshman at the time. Colter rushed for 105 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Colter started the first three games in 2011 when Persa was injured, leading the ‘Cats to two wins and one close loss. If Persa had been healthy, the preseason Heisman Trophy candidate would have led Northwestern to three wins.

Game #4 of the 2011 season was a heartbreaking 38-35 loss to Illinois in Persa’s first game back. Persa threw for four touchdowns, but his nine rushing attempts net -3 yards. If he hadn’t suffered the Achilles injury, Persa would have been much more effective in that game. In 2010, the fewest rushing yards a healthy Persa recorded was 13 in an easy win against Illinois State. It pretty much goes without saying that Northwestern would have handled Illinois with a healthy Dan Persa.

Following that game, the Wildcats lost the next three in real life. Each of the games against #12 Michigan, Iowa, and #21 Penn State were decided by ten or more points. While I doubt that there was much Northwestern could have done against Michigan with a healthy Persa, the games at Iowa and against Penn State could have both gone to the Wildcats with Persa at full strength.

In the game at Iowa, Persa threw an uncharacteristic pick-six and rushed for -8 yards. In the game against Iowa the previous season, Persa ran for 50 yards. In the actual 2011 game at Iowa, Persa completed 31 of 40 passes, despite the fact that the Hawkeye defense didn’t have to respect his running ability as much. Putting all these factors together, I see a Wildats W.

Similar logic applies to the homecoming game against Penn State, when Persa re-injured his Achilles in the fourth quarter. A stronger, more agile Persa turns a 10-point Wildcat loss into a narrow victory for Northwestern.

I would see the 2011 Wildcats with a full-strength Persa finishing the season at 10-2. They would win all the games they ended up winning, plus the games against Army, Illinois, Iowa and Penn State. They would still lose to Michigan and Michigan State and finish third in the Legends division.

This would have very little impact on Northwestern’s 2011 bowl appearance. The 9-3 Nebraska Cornhuskers would still be a more attractive bowl guest than a 10-2 Wildcats team. Northwestern would move up one or two slots to the Insight Bowl or the TicketCity Bowl (again), where they would be crushed by the powerful offense of Oklahoma or Houston, respectively.

Persa would still break the career NCAA record for completion percentage, although his completion percentage would be lower. This is because he would attempt more throws on the run than he did as a primarily pocket passer with his injury. Persa would go on to be drafted in the 4th round of the 2012 NFL Draft, but would fail to make the Minnesota Vikings final roster.

As for the 2012 Northwestern team, biggest impact would be the fact that both Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian logged fewer reps in game situations in 2011. This would end up hurting the Wildcats in close games on the road. Northwestern would lose the close road games at Syracuse and Michigan State. This wouldn’t affect Northwestern’s bowl placement, so Northwestern would still face Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. The Wildcats would still win that game, as most of the differences attributed to changes in playing time would be gone by the end of the season.

All in all, the Wildcats would be trading two wins in 2012 for four extra wins in 2011 in Dan Persa never injured his Achilles. While it may be tempting to wonder “What If” and think of the 2011 season as a lost one, Northwestern’s program is much better situated in 2013 and beyond with the way things ended up.

Read prior “What If” columns

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