The least you should know about the 2011 Wildcats. Part of Big Ten Week.
• Hang on to your mortar boards. I doubt many Big Ten fans have ever felt much sympathy for their smartypants rivals in Evanston, but their cardiologists certainly wouldn't recommend trading places. Any game involving Northwestern can go either way, and usually does: Since 2007, well over half of the Wildcats' games (28 of 51) have been decided by a touchdown or less, including 20 of their 30 wins in that span.
In the last three years alone, Northwestern has endured 15 games that featured at least one fourth quarter lead change and more than a dozen that were decided in the final five minutes, including wins over Duke, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Purdue, Indiana, Iowa again, Illinois, Wisconsin, Vanderbilt, Minnesota again and Iowa again — just good enough to forge the first three-year bowl streak in school history.
• You just got Persa-cuted. If it wasn't clear that Dan Persa was the most valuable quarterback in the Big Ten before he went down with a season-ending Achilles injury on the game-winning touchdown pass against Iowa, it certainly was afterward: Sans their all-purpose dynamo, the Wildcats were thumped in their final three games in decisive fashion. Before he was knocked out, Persa had personally accounted for 75 percent of Northwestern's total offense, and closed his first season as a starter with the school record for pass efficiency, the Big Ten record for completion percentage and a first-team all-conference nod from league coaches.
He was also the most abused quarterback in the conference, absorbing 34 sacks and many more hits from opposing pass rushers while also taking a pounding as the team's leading rusher. This time, Persa will be operating behind the Big Ten's most experienced offensive line — nationally, only SMU returns more career starts up front — and will still have the benefit of throwing to his favorite target, Jeremy Ebert.
He still wasn't quite ready to go in the spring, though, casting some doubt on whether he'll be back at full speed in the fall. Any hesitancy to deploy him as essentially a second tailback out of the shotgun could significantly change the shape of the offense.
• Holding up your end. Persa's exit from the lineup coincided with the wholesale collapse of the defense over the second of the season, which had the arrow pointing south regardless of who was playing quarterback. After a 5-0 start through September and the first week of October, Northwestern yielded an average of 36 points on 460 yards over the last eight games and went 2-6. The 70-23 blowout at Wisconsin in the regular season finale was one of the grisliest episodes of the season for any team, but it was only the worst of a series of disasters for Northwestern.
The good news (depending on your perspective) is that the Wildcats get back most of that group, including the only standouts, ball-hawking safety Brian Peters and soon-to-be-NFL-bound defensive end Vince Browne (right), both second-team All-Big Ten picks. But barring a dramatic, fluky spike in the turnover margin, the overall talent level is still too far below the curve to put a darkhorse run at the Legends Division title within the offense's reach, in spite of its experience.
• Lord of the Flies. Pat Fitzgerald's rise to the top job was about as haphazard as possible on the heels of boss Randy Walker's sudden death in 2006, when Fitzgerald was hastily appointed as the nation's youngest head coach at just 31 years old. Five years later, I'm beginning to be convinced Fitzgerald is in the early stages of becoming the next Joe Paterno, minus the national championships. Already, he's managed to turn a traditional laughingstock into a reliable bowl team, and himself into one of the most respected coaches in the Big Ten.
Fitzgerald gets the culture at his alma mater, knows how to recruit and coach players against the high academic hurdles there and with a new, 10-year contract extension running through 2020, has no incentive to take his act anywhere else anytime soon.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday. As for the headline, well, he'll be here all season, folks.