Liberty Legend Still Persa Strong
Dan Persa may be just two years removed from college, but he broke down the spread offense as articulately as any grey beard coach.
“You want to get your team the best play and make the best decision on each play to keep it going,” he explained. “With a pro-style offense, sometimes you see the play is not going to work with the defense so you want to just get two yards and work on the next down. But with the spread, it always seemed like there was an answer to what is going on.
“And if you have a quarterback who is smart, knows what he is doing, and makes the right decisions,” he concluded, “it is a tough thing to defend.”
Dan Persa was a smart quarterback who knew what he was doing and made the right decisions. Through out his career at Bethlehem Liberty, and then at Northwestern, he was awfully tough to defend.
Persa started for the Wildcats in the 2010 and 2011 seasons, running their spread to perfection. He made first team All-Big 10 during his 2010 junior campaign, a season where Persa led FBS and set a Big 10 record with a 73.5 percent completion percentage. His 159.04 passing efficiency rating was ninth in the country.
“It is definitely a complicated offense. But once you know your mental checklist and you can go through that pretty quickly, it simplifies a lot. The spread offense is based on the zone read so your first play is a running play,” Persa illuminated. “You catch the ball and you read the defensive end and the defensive tackle depending on their play. That triggers you to keep or pull the ball.
“For the passing game, it’s the same kind of thing. You run down a checklist: if the defensive end crashes, you pull the ball and if the linebacker jumps a corner route then you throw it to the other place. If you see a look that you don’t like, you can flip-flop the play if it is mirrored on both sides. There is a lot going on, but if you boil it down to the few key things that you have to read in each play,” Persa concluded, “it’s not that bad.”
The former Hurricane star had to deal with a ruptured Achilles heel to start his senior year of college, but he closed his career as Division I’s all time completion percentage leader. Persa ultimately completed 73% of his Wildcat passes, throwing 34 touchdowns against just 13 picks. He also ranks in the Wildcats’ Top 15 in both rushing yards and rushing touchdowns.
Small wonder that he was the feature of PersaStrong: Northwestern’s Heisman Trophy campaign. Persa could bench press 360 pounds in his playing days.
But more important than Persa’s individual stats were his team wins. Northwestern went to a bowl in all four of Persa’s seasons. The Wildcats had been to six bowls in their entire history before Persa set foot on campus.
Persa also helped to lead Northwestern to wins against ranked teams in consecutive seasons- a 28-25 win at #9 Nebraska in 2011 and Persa’s favorite game, a 21-17 rally to beat #13 Iowa at his home Ryan Field.
“We were down 10 in my junior season late in the fourth quarter against Iowa. We ended up putting together two pretty cool touchdown drives to win when they were in the top 15,” Persa remembered. “That was a pretty special thing. A lot went into that game and to win in that fashion was a lot of fun.”
Persa tossed two touchdown passes late in the fourth quarter to seal the win. While he ruptured the aforementioned Achillies’ on the second scoring pass, Persa’s 368 total yards did earn him National Player of the Week honors.
The idea of Northwestern beating ranked teams was laughable when Persa was a toddler. From 1974 to 1994, the Wildcats never won more than 4 games. In 1995, led by then-head coach Gary Barnett and All-American linebacker (and current NU coach) Pat Fitzgerald, the Wildcats engineered a turnaround for the ages: improving by seven wins and going to their first Rose Bowl since the Truman presidency.
“Coach Barnett came in expecting to win and I don’t think many of the players thought that before he got there,” Persa feels. “Once things started rolling, you change the expectations. It is no longer okay to go 5-7, which they did this year. Yet in the 80s or 90s, that would be seen as one of the best seasons we’ve ever had.”
The Wildcats were smart enough to have an early interest in Persa; it didn’t hurt that Persa, a National Honor Society member, could thrive at an academically minded school like Northwestern.
“A lot of schools recruited me as a quarterback/wide receiver/safety,” Persa said. “You can see through what a lot of schools are trying to do with you. Northwestern, from a pretty early point, said ‘We think you’re a quarterback and you can lead us to the Big 10 title.’ When I visited Northwestern, I really got along with the coaches and the players.
“People came back who really didn’t think I could play quarterback before I had a good junior and senior year. You have to give credit to people who are loyal to you and not just hop on the bandwagon.”
That bandwagon grew awfully big by the time Persa was a senior. He left Bethlehem Liberty as one of the best dual-threat prep quarterbacks in the United States. Persa became the first Pennsylvanian to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 more in a season. He took Liberty to two PIAA AAAA state title games and won the Associated Press’ State Player of the Year.
He also won the MVP of the Big 33 game, having passed for two scores and rushed for a third in Pennsylvania’s 28-10 win over Ohio.
“It was a blast,” Persa recalls. “First and foremost, it was an honor to be there. From a historical perspective the game means so much to everybody who grows up in Pennsylvania.
“Second, the week was unbelievable, just staying with a host family and getting to know the guys. You’re only there for a week but I still talk to some of the guys I played with on that team and you develop a pretty cool bond. It’s a special honor to be there but at the same time, you’re representing your state- in my case, it was against Ohio- so we took it pretty seriously. We were really happy to get the win.”
Persa would have one more exhibition in him: he played in the 2012 East-West Shrine Game
“It was a little different than an All-Star game in high school because you aren’t playing for as much pride. It’s more getting prepared for the NFL and impressing NFL scouts,” Persa offered. “You are meeting with people all week: with coaches and with scouting directors. But it was fun. It was nice to get to know kids from other schools and see how their experience compares to yours. And it’s cool to watch guys that I played with in that game playing in the NFL and doing well.”
Persa himself had a try out with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; an ankle injury unfortunately forced him to withdraw. But he stays close to football. Persa currently works in commercial real estate in Chicago, where he is very plugged in to NU.
And he does get back to Bethlehem several times a year. “I do some camps in Chicago and in the Lehigh Valley as well to try and keep me involved in the game,” he said.
Persa’s 2010 is one of the best seasons in Northwestern history. Yet the Communications major also graduated with the skills needed to thrive in the game of life. He was a finalist for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award, a nomination given as much to his outstanding academics and community service as it was to his football prowess. There is little doubt that Persa will continue to excel in his new playing field, just a few El stops south of Ryan Field.
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