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updated: 9/26/2011 10:28 PM

QB Dan Persa back as NU gears up for Illinois

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  • Quarterback Dan Persa is expected to play Saturday when Northwestern visits Illinois.

    Quarterback Dan Persa is expected to play Saturday when Northwestern visits Illinois.
    Associated Press


Quarterbacks get the headlines for better or worse, so Dan Persa's health gets top billing.

"I feel like I can play the whole game, yeah," Persa said Monday.

If the reigning first-team all-Big Ten quarterback makes more than a cameo debut in Saturday's Big Ten opener between Northwestern and No. 24 Illinois (11 a.m., ESPN2), then that's a huge boost for the Wildcats.

But Persa isn't the only member of the cavalry trying to ride to NU's rescue.

Senior defensive tackle Jack DiNardo, who missed the last two games with a bad leg, has returned to the top of the depth chart.

Redshirt freshman strong-side linebacker Collin Ellis and senior safety David Arnold -- two players expected to start in late August -- are back in the mix as well.

"Those guys are high-motor guys," said senior cornerback Jordan Mabin. "That's going to be great. That's going to give us a lot of extra help on the defense.

"Jack returning, he brings back some experience and that helps that defensive line out. And I feel like all the games start up front -- both sides of the ball."

That's certainly where Illinois won last year's ballyhooed meeting at Wrigley Field.

Mikel Leshoure rushed for a school-record 330 yards as the Illini crushed the Wildcats with a combination of physical dominance, coaching wrinkles and crummy NU fundamentals.

"Last year, we got outmatched a little bit," Mabin said.

"You've got to play the plays properly and you've got to coach the guys to fit in the right gaps," said NU coach Pat Fitzgerald. "They ran a couple little variations formationally last year and we just did a bad job coaching our guys.

"I said that after the game (a 48-27 Illinois win). What I saw on tape was exactly what we were trying to communicate on the boundary and we just didn't get it articulated well enough."

At the same time, Illinois controlled the line regardless of whether the Wildcats put themselves in the right places.

Northwestern hopes Persa's return helps the defense as much as the offense.

Persa didn't play in last year's game because it came seven days after he ruptured his right Achilles' tendon against Iowa.

"Dan and our entire offense has been successful in the past about controlling the ball and controlling the pace of the game a little bit," said senior linebacker Bryce McNaul. "That helps us out tremendously on defense."