This time they started and finished.
Within a span of 4:49 in the fourth quarter, junior quarterback Dan Persa tacked 2 touchdowns on the board, 1 on a 6-yard pass to fellow junior Jeremy Ebert and the other on a 20-yard throw to sophomore Demetrius Fields, to rally Northwestern to a 21-17 upset of 13th-ranked Iowa before a sellout of 47,130 at Ryan Field on Saturday afternoon.
Unable to finish off wins over Purdue, Michigan State and Penn State, this time the Wildcats (7-3 overall, 3-3 Big Ten) rallied from a 17-7 deficit to stun the Hawkeyes (7-3, 4-2) on their final two drives.
The victory was the Cats' fifth in the past six years over a program former head coach Gary Barnett had earmarked as the measuring stick for the Cats' rise to prominence in the Big Ten.
However, the Wildcats paid a heavy price for the victory.
On the winning touchdown pass with 1:22 left in the game, Persa drifted right, avoided two Iowa defenders and threw off balance to Fields who fought off Iowa cornerback Micah Hyde for the reception.
Although he landed on both feet, Persa limped and then crumbled to the turf. Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald announced after the game that Persa had torn the Achilles' tendon in his right leg and was to undergo surgery Saturday night.
"The prognosis is he will be out for the rest of the year," Fitzgerald said. "He's a warrior and this will pass. If I know Dan, he won't be satisfied with what he has done this year and will come back with a vengeance next year."
The loss of Persa, who also rushed for 50 yards, elevates redshirt freshman Evan Watkins into the role of the Cats' field general, starting with next Saturday's rivalry game with Illinois at Wrigley Field. The 6-foot-6 Carol Stream product, who played at Glenbard North, has appeared in three games this season.
"I know Evan is prepared," Fitzgerald said. "Someone's unfortunate situation becomes another man's opportunity.
"I know one guy that probably won't sleep tonight, and that's Evan. I've got a feeling the first guy I'll see tomorrow morning will be Evan. I have got a feeling the guy I'll see the most this week will be Evan. It's a Chicago kid getting his first start in Wrigley Field against our instate rival and I don't think you could script a better opportunity for a young player."
Persa's second TD pass of the day wrapped up a 32-for-43 (318 yards) performance. His lone interception bounced off the hands of freshman Tony Jones and right into the arms of Hawkeye linebacker Jeremiha Hunter early in the fourth quarter.
However, the Hawkeyes were unable to put the game out of reach. Facing second-and-11 at the Cats' 43, quarterback Ricky Stanzi (23-for-41, 270 yards, 2 TDs) went for broke and tried to hit senior Derrell Johnson-Kounlianos on a deep route down the right sideline. Wildcats safety Brian Peters got his 6-4 frame in front of the ball and the Cats had possession at their own 15 with 10:56 remaining.
"I was in three-deep coverage on the post and I thought I was deep enough where Stanzi wouldn't throw the ball,'' Peters said. "But he did and I just cut underneath."
Peters' pick set the stage for Persa to direct a 13-play, 85-yard drive. Persa was 7 of 8 on the drive, which took 4:35 off the clock, before hitting Ebert cutting across the deep right corner of the end zone.
One week after having two Penn State running backs rush for over 100 yards each against it, the Northwestern defense was able to limit Iowa to only 101 yards on the ground. Iowa was only able to work just over two minutes off the clock on its next possession, but Ryan Donahue's 52-yard punt forced Persa to set up shop at his own 9 with 4:08 remaining.
Aided by Persa's 23-yard scramble on third down and a 21-yard completion to running back Mike Trumpy, the Cats had the ball on the Iowa 20 with 1:29 remaining. Seven seconds later, Persa worked his magic again and found Fields in the front of the end zone.
"I don't know what happened,'' Fields said. "I just saw the ball and I caught it. I remember the ball was up in the air and then going to get it. The way the season has been going just all came to a head with this game and I hope I can continue on with it."
Northwestern's defense still had to rise to the occasion one more time. Stanzi drove the Hawks to the Cats' 45 in 14 plays before Peters batted away a fourth down pass to Keenan Davis in the end zone with six seconds remaining.
"Persa is very dangerous and will hurt you in a lot of different ways,'' said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. "There were a lot of plays with sideline-to-sideline type action and it's hard to chase a quarterback around like that. He's extremely elusive and very, very tough.''
After Persa had scored on a 2-yard TD run on his team's opening drive of the game, Iowa surged back with a 32-yard field goal from Mike Meyer in the second quarter and Stanzi's third-quarter touchdown passes of 5 yards to Marvin McNutt and 70 yards to Johnson-Koulianos.