The last time Northwestern played Illinois, Dan Persa was on crutches and Evan Watkins was taking a lot of hits in his first collegiate start at quarterback, amid the circus that was the Wrigley Field game last November. A week earlier, Persa blew out his Achilles against Iowa when he threw the winning touchdown.
Fast forward to this season: Persa isn't on crutches but he hasn't played yet, either, and has sat out six consecutive games. Watkins isn't Persa's backup anymore -- Kain Colter is -- and it was obvious to many that Persa wasn't going to see any playing time at West Point unless Colter got hurt and so did backups Trevor Siemian and Evan Watkins.
Will we finally see Persa, then, at Illinois on Oct. 1? It is the Wildcats' Big Ten opener, after all, and a chance for NU to avenge that 48-27 loss to the Illini a year ago.
But coach Pat Fitzgerald isn't saying.
"I'll have an update for you on Thursday," he said immediately after the Army game.
The Wildcats have a bye this week, which falls at an opportune time for Persa to get his strength back before heading down to Champaign, just in time to face the Wildcats' in-state rival.
Receiver Jeremy Ebert, who paried up with Persa last season on so many explosive plays, was quiet after the Army loss and agreed that it would be better going into the bye week (and the Illinois game) at 3-0 instead of 2-1.
Colter said he hopes Persa comes back soon "because [against Army] it showed that we need him."
Ebert, though, refuted the comment.
"I don't know [when Persa is coming back], nor do I really care," Ebert said. "I trust whoever is back there to make the plays. They're coached the same way Dan is and they can make the same plays Dan can. [The bye] is good for preparation because this loss is going to hurt, but we have to learn from it. It's the perfect time for a bye to work on our fundamentals and what was lacking in these first three games."
The Illini won't be one of those teams to overlook. They just beat nationally ranked Arizona State in Champaign and sophomore linebacker Jonathan Brown was named the Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Week on Monday. Brown had seven tackles against the Sun Devils, but also recorded career highs in tackles for loss (3.5) and sacks (1.5). Brown had his first interception of the season and forced a pick in the first quarter.
"I'm glad we've got a bye week, because we've got a lot to work on," Fitzgerald said. "We'll get back into a semblance of normalcy. We get to go play Big Ten football and this is an opportunity for us to come together and be a better football team. You learn a lot through adversity and that's what we're facing right now."