Dan Persa was a one-man show for the Northwestern offense last season, and that was most apparent in the fourth quarter against Iowa, as the senior quarterback ran all over the No. 13 Hawkeyes to grab a come-from-behind victory.
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, Persa ruptured his Achilles tendon on the final offensive play of that game, and his absence caused the NU offense to sputter in the last three games.
Despite his injury, Persa was Northwestern’s second-leading rusher in 2010, finishing only 11 yards behind freshman Mike Trumpy, who teamed up with freshman Adonis Smith, among others in a rotation, to make up the Wildcats’ running back corp.
Trumpy and Smith combined for only 726 rushing yards last season, and that number must improve if the Wildcats want to make a run at the Big Ten Championship. With another year of experience and a solid offseason, the team hopes the running game can step up.
“Our running game definitely needs to take a step up, and I think we’re taking the right steps so far,” Persa said. “They started to get a chip on their shoulder because they got upset because people were saying, ‘Well, why can’t you run the ball.’”
An improvement in the running game would be a huge help for Persa, too, as it would open up his options with more attention being diverted to the running backs. It would also allow him to take fewer hits and decrease the risk of injury.
“Going through last year, I took a pretty big beating toward the end of the year and I’m fine with that load being taken off of me.” Persa said. “I’ve told [Trumpy and Smith] many times, I’ve told them I don’t want to rush for 500 yards, you guys can have those yards. I don’t want to be taking those hits; I take enough in the pocket.”
However, Northwestern recognizes the value of Persa’s ability to run and it won’t deviate from its game plan to accommodate the running backs.
“Our offense is not going to change,” offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. “The quarterback still has to be a threat to run…but we want to get [the ball] in the backs’ hands. Those guys need to carry the ball; it’s important that they do that, but it’s always been that way.
“We don’t get caught up in how many carries a guy gets, or how many this or that, you know,” he added. “We’re trying to play the best 11 guys in the best situation they can, and give them plays that they’re going to be successful at.”
Trumpy also recognizes the importance of having Persa in the backfield, but knows that his role needs to increase this season.
“Dan’s an unbelievable athlete so we’re going to try to get him the ball as much as we can and get the ball in his hands,” he said. “But if we can try and take the pressure off of him, that would be good.”
The running backs will certainly be put in a good position to be successful. Persa will divert a lot of attention, opening up the field more for the running backs.
Trumpy and Smith will also have an experienced offensive line to work with—arguably the best unit in coach Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure—and one year worth of game experience for themselves.
“We’ve got pretty much every offensive lineman back,” Trumpy said. “You know, people have been saying we have four returning offensive linemen, but we’ve got guys who have been playing for many years. I think the offensive line’s doing very well, all the running backs are coming back, and we’re a lot more confident.”
Despite the confidence surrounding the running game, and the offense in general, Trumpy and Smith’s roles still have not been completely determined. However, it’s clear that they, and their team, expect their workload to increase.
“Conceptually, we want to spread the ball around, so those running backs, that position could get 25 touches in a game,” McCall said. “We’ll kind of see where that goes.”