IOWA CITY — Spread quarterbacks have perfected a play that absolutely rips the hearts out of defenses.
For the most part, it’s a broken play. It’s really not even a play. It’s more a feat of athleticism that makes defensive coordinators drop into the fetal position.
You saw Iowa State quarterback Seneca Wallace pull it off at Kinnick Stadium in 2002. It’s the “run 100 mph to the right and then, at full gear, turn and throw a bullseye to a backside wide receiver who’s long forgotten and, subsequently, wide open for a big gain” play.
Yeah, that play. Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa majors communications studies and that play.
“They [Iowa's defensive coaches] called me in yesterday, just walking down the hall and I got called in to see a play where he was running pretty hard to his right and threw the ball pretty hard back to his left for a sizable gain against a pretty good football team last Saturday [Michigan],” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “With all due respect, I don’t want to offend anybody, but Persa is really at a whole different level [than quarterbacks Iowa has faced this season].
“If you just look at what he’s done for their team, there’s a real story in itself there.”
The name “Persa” rings out in Iowa’s video rooms.
“He left us maybe, sort of, left us in the dust, maybe, I guess you could say a little bit,” middle linebacker James Morris said. “As far as I’m concerned he’s the best player in the Big Ten. I thought he was last year and he’s on his way to being that again.”
It’s a little different Dan Persa this season. You remember that Persa tore an Achilles tendon on the TD pass that beat the Hawkeyes, 21-17, last season at Ryan Field. Persa has played in just two of the Wildcats’ five games. He had to leave Illinois because he took a hit on his heel.
So far this year, the stats show a Persa who’s more of a thrower than a runner. He has rushed for 35 and lost 43 yards for minus-8. Throwing Persa isn’t a bad option, though. He set a Big Ten record last season with with a completion percentage of 73.5.
“Dan Persa is a football player. That guy can play the game,” defensive tackle Mike Daniels said. “He can run well. He’s accurate when he passes and he’s shifty.”
It’s just been two games, but Persa has shown you don’t throw with your Achilles tendon. He’s completed 42 of 58 for 454 yards, four TDs and one interception. Yes, that’s a completion percentage of 72.4 percent.
“He’s a playmaker,” said Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg, who’s completing 60.1 percent of his passes (98 of 163). “He puts a lot of pressure on defenses and I know our defense will have to do everything it can to bottle him up.”
Believe it or not, Persa has played in three games against the Hawkeyes, but really only 1 1/2 at that. In ’08, he played special teams and didn’t record a stat. When starting QB Mike Kafka left the game in ’09, Persa basically played keep-away against the Hawkeyes, stringing together 104 yards of total offense in the final quarter to preserve a 17-10 victory.
Last season, before his Achilles blew up, Persa dominated. He generated 368 of the ‘Cats 419 yards offense. That’s 88 percent. He accounted for 100 percent of Northwestern’s scores, running for one and passing for two more, including the game-winner with 1:22 left.
OK, Persa is good. He’s good enough where Northwestern has invested in an website called “PersaStrong,” a play on Lance Armstrong’s “LiveStrong.” It’s pumping Persa for a Heisman run.
What does Iowa have to do to stop or at least slow PersaStrong?
“We have to keep in front of him and try to keep pressure on him the best we can,” defensive end Broderick Binns said. “We knew he’s going to escape somehow. We can’t have that.”
The health of his Achilles might slow his running, but the physical nature of Persa’s game is underrated. When he’s got it going with his feet, he’s elusive but he also runs with lean and behind his pads, making him difficult to bring down.
“It’s frustrating, when you think you have the sack on him and he’s still running around,” cornerback Shaun Prater said. “At some point, you think, c’mon, get down. Someone get him down and get the play over with. We have to be disciplined in everything we do and try to force him into making some errors.”
Of course, there’s contain, the hard lesson learned after Steele Jantz and Iowa State. That’s a concept for the entire defense, not just the ends.
And then there’s what every red-blooded defensive player loves. Iowa knows the more physical it is, the more of a toll it will take on the 6-1, 210-pounder.
“Once a quarterback gets hit and he has dirt in his helmet and he’s pulling grass out of his facemask, after awhile, it will take a toll on him,” Prater said. “Hopefully, we can get to him and make it tough on him.”
Yeah, that’s been the thing with Iowa vs. Persa. It’s been a game of Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote. You know which is which.