Nov. 13, 2010
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By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
It is the biggest news and so must be dealt with first. After the touchdown pass he threw to Demetrius Field that gave the 'Cats their win over Iowa Saturday at Ryan Field, quarterback Dan Persa ruptured his Achilles. He was scheduled to have surgery that night and, obviously, is out for the rest of the season. "Freak deal," Pat Fitzgerald would say. "What he said was he was running to go celebrate with Demetrius. . . He actually said he heard something pop."
And what was Persa's mood?
"Danny was in great spirits afterward. I thought he was going to chew (his backup) Evan (Watkins) out a little bit just to get him ready to go."
"I got to talk to him a little bit," superback Drake Dunsmore would later add. "Dan is real positive. He's a leader at heart. He's not going to show any negative emotion or anything in front of the guys."
The quarterback job now belongs to the 6-foot-6 Watkins, a redshirt freshman from Carol Stream, Ill., who will have only seven career passing attempts behind him when he leads the 'Cats against Illinois at Wrigley Field. "I know one guy that probably won't sleep tonight, that's Evan," Fitzgerald would say. "I've got a feeling the first guy I'll see tomorrow morning is Evan. I got a feeling the guy I'm going to see most this week is Evan. Chicago kid getting his first college start in Wrigley Field against our in-state rival. I don't know if you could script a better opportunity for a young person. It's under a difficult circumstance, without a doubt, without a doubt. You never want to see that happen. But I have a little experience in this. We'll help the guys through."
Now before we get to the late 'Cat histrionics; before we see how they pulled a Lazarus and rose from the dead; before we look at how they finally closed out a game after failing to do that against Purdue and Michigan State and Penn State; before we do any of that, just consider the dormancy of their offense during the belly of their affair with the Hawkeyes. Through that time, which stretched from the middle of the first quarter through the first four minutes of the fourth, they had eight possessions; they picked up just 10 first downs (one on a penalty); they punted six times; they missed a field goal attempt; and they lost a ball on an interception.
So just how does a team rally back from such paltry production? "It was a lot more positive this week on the sideline," said Dunsmore. "When that (bad stuff) happens, it's really important to learn from what happened, but forget about it at the same time. Don't dwell on three-and-outs. I think we did a much better job of that today (than last week at Penn State)."
The 'Cat defense, quite obviously, kept this one close throughout the belly, here tackling far better and attacking more avidly than it had a week earlier against the Nittany Lions. On three-straight Hawkeye possessions, which spanned the end of the first half and the first half of the third quarter, it was nicked for all of their 17 points. But on both sides of those hiccups it was implacable, limiting Iowa to just 101 net rushing yards (59 below its season average) and just those points (15.3 below its average).
"I thought the leadership on the team kind of stood out from the defensive standpoint," middle linebacker Nate Williams said when asked to explain its turnaround. "Myself, Corbin (Bryant), Q (Quentin Davie) and a lot of the seniors on defense really got guys going on the sidelines, got emotion and energy on the sidelines when things didn't go our way. We responded really well."
What did Williams say?
"Just focus up. And we tried to get some guys up from the offense too, just to get emotion going on the sidelines. Sometimes you come off, guys' heads are down. I squirted some water on the faces of guys on the D line. They didn't like that too much. But it got some things going. . . I was just having fun out there. I don't know how the team responded, but a lot of guys liked it and it was great to be out there and make some plays."
"I was squirted, yes," the safety Brian Peters would later say with a smile. "It was just all of us having fun and playing together and having fun playing in the game, not making it a job, which it can be sometimes. We have a great group of guys who like to have fun while playing the game, and if we can execute while doing that, we're a tough team to beat."
Had it not been fun, had it been too much of a job?
"I don't want to make it out like that. But we emphasized having fun," said Peters. "In the second half last week it seemed as if no one was having fun. We kept being punched in the face, they kept getting plays on us, gaining yards, and we didn't respond. We didn't have fun fighting back and rallying together. This week we focused on that, came together, played together, had fun and won a football game."
That win was unimaginable when linebacker Jeremiha Hunter picked off Persa early in the fourth quarter and the Hawkeyes, already up 10, took over on their own 38. The 'Cats, who had scored on their opening drive, had done nothing but sputter since then (see above), and now Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi quickly drove it to a second-and-11 on their 43. Now he went for their jugular, went to rip out their hearts, went to drive the big ol' spike into their coffin, and threw a deep post. "It was a three cover," remembered Peters, who would intercept this ball. "I was on the post. I saw a double post coming from my right and I thought I had good enough depth to discourage him from throwing it. He still threw it and I did a head whip and I guess it was under thrown to (Derrell Johnson-Koulianos) and I came underneath it. . .and made a play."
Was he surprised Stanzi threw it?
"Usually you don't throw a post into a post player. But I'll take it."
"The interception by Brian," said Fitzgerald, "I thought it was big. I thought we regained momentum."
"There was a lot of sideline energy after that pick," echoed Williams. "The guys were getting it up and getting it going. The offense responded very well even though they were pinned back."
The offense took over on its own 15 and now, so suddenly, it was a clunker transformed into a 'Vette, an Edsel transformed into a screaming Jag, a lemon transformed into the tastiest pitcher of lemonade imaginable. Persa for 19 to running back Mike Trumpy. Persa for four to Trumpy and then for seven to wide receiver Jeremy Ebert. Here came a sack for a loss of nine, but that didn't matter now, not to this humming machine. It was instead Persa for 21 to wide receiver Charles Brown and, after an incompletion, Trumpy running for eight and then two for a first down at the Hawkeye 33. Finally, for the first time since their opening drive, the 'Cats had strung together more than two first downs in a possession, and five plays later Persa finished this one off with the six-yard beauty to Ebert that pulled them to within three with 6:21 remaining.
Just over two minutes elapsed before Persa was back at it again, but this time he was pinned back on his own nine. Still, again, this cannot deter him, and he scrambles for 22, then throws one dink here and another there, finally finds Trumpy for 21 and a first down at the Hawkeye 20 with 1:29 left. Now, after an Iowa time out, the call is X-Dog, and he rolls right pursued by a pair of Hawkeyes and looks back to his left and throws across his body off his back foot and somehow, somehow, there is Fields, just inside the left pylon, beating Hawkeye corner Micah Hyde to the ball.
"That's exactly the drill (offensive coordinator) Mick (McCall) does," Fitzgerald later joked. "Wait, wait, wait, gets your lips knocked off and throw off your back foot. No. Honestly, you have two young men making a play. Danny making a play and Demetrius making a play."
"I don't know what happened," said Fields himself. "I just saw the ball and I caught it. (Receivers) Coach (Kevin) Johns always makes the analogy, when the ball's up in the air, that's all you should think about. I don't even remember what I did on the play. I remember the ball up in the air and I remember going and getting it."
The 'Cat defense held and they closed out this game and later, as Fields and Peters sat for interviews, they were asked why it had taken to Week 10 for this team to resemble so many of its predecessors and pull out a late win.
"I wish. I wish I could explain," said Fields, shaking his head.
"We were constantly improving," said Peters. "It may have taken us a little longer to get together. But it's a fight. It's a long, 12-week fight."
Now came the crowd and a mosh pit of celebration on the field. "I have to admit," said Fields. "I sent one of the freshman down there to tell the fans to come down on the field."
And finally, from Fitzgerald, the first little wave of what promises to be a tsunami of talk about what lies ahead: "It's a big game for us. We have an opportunity to play in an arena against our rival. You couldn't ask for a better opportunity. Now all we can do is get prepared for it consistently. That will be our focus this week. . . The opportunity on Saturday, it's going to be a bowl game like atmosphere at Wrigley. It's going to be ridiculous. We're going to soak it all in. We're going to enjoy it. Then we're going to go play hopefully 60 minutes of Wildcat football. . . It's going to be a bowl game in Chicago. I can't wait."
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