Northwestern’s Dan Persa, now one of the top quarterbacks in the Big Ten, grew up in Bethlehem, has family ties to Penn State and came to games at Beaver Stadium as a kid.
But when it came time to decide where he would play college football, Penn State wasn’t one of his choices. The Liberty High School standout didn’t garner much interest – or an offer for that matter – from the Nittany Lions.
When asked how much Penn State tried to recruit Persa in 2005 and 2006, coach Joe Paterno chuckled and said, “I’ve asked that question a couple times of the staff.”
“We didn't take a quarterback that year, so we really weren't looking for one,” Paterno said Tuesday. “But there were some things. He's not the biggest kid in the world. He's just one of those guys that's tough to evaluate because he makes things happen, he's smart, he's tough. If we were going to take a quarterback, I'm not even sure we would have taken him.”
“I don’t know. They didn’t really contact me that much,” said Persa, whose mother and sister attended Penn State. “A little bit my senior year, but I was already committed to Northwestern at that point. So I wasn’t really taking any calls at that point. I don’t know. I didn’t really ask for an explanation why.”
As Paterno said, summing up the situation nicely: “Our loss was Northwestern’s gain.”
On Saturday night, Paterno and Penn State will face Persa for the second time when the Lions (6-1, 3-0 Big Ten) visit the Wildcats (2-4, 0-3) at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill. In last year’s meeting, Penn State came from 21 points down to beat Northwestern at Beaver Stadium in what was Paterno’s historic 400th career win.
Last season was Persa’s first as a starter, as he had to wait his turn behind Mike Kafka, now a backup with the Eagles. Persa, a dual threat, passed for 2,581 yards and tossed 15 touchdowns with four interceptions, completing an efficient 73.5 percent of his passes in the process. He also scored a whopping nine rushing touchdowns and tallied 519 yards on the ground.
His play earned him the first-team All-Conference honors in the eyes of the Big Ten coaches despite missing the last three games of the season after rupturing his Achilles in a Nov. 13 win against Iowa.
He also missed the first three games this season. But since his return he has led the Wildcats’ offense ton average of 30 points per game. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound signal caller has completed 74.2 percent of his passes and has 696 passing yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions.
“He’s real smart. He’ll go through all his reads,” Penn State cornerback D’Anton Lynn said. “He’ll sit in the pocket for as long as possible. He’s real good at scrambling, which makes it tough on us. So we have to try to keep him in the pocket, keep him from scrambling so they don’t complete those broken plays.”
However, because of the injury, Persa has only been able to run for 52 yards on 28 attempts this season. He said he is playing at about 80 percent right now. Doctors originally told him the injury would take at least a year to fully recover from.
He’s had to alter the way he plays by staying in the pocket more.
“I’m realizing I can’t get away with the stuff I did last year,” he said.
Regardless, some of Penn State’s defenders talked this week about the importance of containing Persa, as well as Northwestern’s other quarterback, Kain Colter.
Colter started the first three games under center in Persa’s absence and is also the team’s leading rusher with 370 yards. He also has the ability to line up as a receiver, having caught nine balls for 121 yards. Penn State defensive tackle Devon Still said Colter is a similar quarterback to Persa.
A reporter asked Persa on Wednesday, given the quarterback’s ties to Penn State, the outcome of last year’s meeting and being a primetime game, if there was more riding on Saturday's game. But ultimately, the Wildcats, losers of four straight games, are just hungry for a win.
“The last four really hurt for us,” Persa said. “We’ve just got to focus in and get a win this week.”