By DAVE CAMPBELL, AP Sports Writer
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Minnesota’s raw defense has had a rough start to the season. Dan Persa and the Northwestern Wildcats don’t figure to provide any relief.
Northwestern’s forgettable days in the dregs of the Big Ten appear done, and even in the recent years that the Wildcats haven’t gone to a bowl game they’ve at least had a productive offense. The spread system installed 10 seasons ago by then-coach Randy Walker has produced an average of 405 yards and 25 points per game since.
Persa has picked right up where Mike Kafka, now in the NFL with Philadelphia, left off at quarterback. The junior is currently third in the FBS with a 186.34 passing efficiency rating and 12th in total offense. Persa leads the Wildcats (4-0) with 172 yards rushing and has completed more than 80 percent of his 106 passes for 1,049 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s been intercepted once.
“This is just a fun offense, and Dan is the one that stands out,” wide receiver Jeremy Ebert said after Northwestern’s 30-25 win last week over Central Michigan, a 12-2 team last season.
Minnesota coach Tim Brewster has 10 new starters on defense, which is ranked 85th out of 120 FBS teams with an average of 387 yards allowed over the first four games.
“There’s youth and inexperience, but because we’re talented and because we work hard, we’ll improve,” Brewster said.
This is homecoming weekend for the Gophers (1-3), who don’t have much to celebrate at this point. Though Brewster frequently insisted this week they are close to being unbeaten like Northwestern, losses to South Dakota and Northern Illinois at TCF Bank Stadium did not sit well with frustrated fans or school administration.
Another defeat would put Brewster’s future further in doubt.
“Schematically they do an outstanding job in all three phases,” Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “You just have to pop in the tape and watch the way that, right now, they are a play away here or a play away there.”
At his news conference earlier this week, Fitzgerald took the typical butter-up-the-opponent coachspeak to a new level in raving about Brewster and his staff and his recruits. He called the Gophers the best team the Wildcats will have played this year and about quarterback Adam Weber said, “I don’t know if there is a better athlete in the country.”
Added Fitzgerald: “When things are going well and winning games, those little mistakes go away. When you’re not, those losses compound themselves and people get impatient. That’s OK. That’s what we sign up for as coaches. We take the good with the bad.”
Gophers linebacker Keanon Cooper called the Wildcats the most disciplined team they will have faced to date, a trait that could be troubling for a defense that has yielded a bunch of big gains while repeatedly whiffing on tackles and getting caught out of position.
“We’re pretty confident because we know that we mistakes that we’re making are very simple mistakes, easy to be corrected,” Cooper said. “So we know what we have to do. It’s not like a situation where we’re lost: `Where do we go from here?’ We know exactly what we have to do.”
Though the problems have transcended the safety position, the Gophers have missed senior Kim Royston, one of their captains. He is still recovering from a broken left leg, and though he is working out with the team he is unlikely to play on Saturday.
“It’s just so frustrating for Kim because, golly, he wants so badly to be back and to be out there,” Brewster said before Tuesday’s practice. “I just haven’t been able to put him fully padded into a team scrimmage situation yet, because I just don’t think his mind’s there. I’ve got to have great confidence that he’s able to protect himself and take care of himself properly before I put him out there. It’s close. I know it’s close, but that last step is going to be critical.”
Minnesota native Bryce McNaul, a star at Eden Prairie High School, was one of the in-state recruits Brewster didn’t get after he was hired in 2007. He chose Northwestern instead. McNaul missed the first two games this season due to a shoulder injury, but the fourth-year junior has taken over as the starter at outside linebacker.
“I think it was because of the relationship we had built with Bryce and his family prior to the coaching change,” Fitzgerald said. “We had him already committed, and I remember Tim saying they were going to do everything they could to keep every player in state, so we took that to mean they were at least going to give guys an opportunity to see if it was a fit.”
Brewster said he believes he can still find that fit with the Gophers.
“I think stay the course is a great term,” Brewster said. “When you believe in what you’re doing, which I do to the core of who I am, you’re not going to change drastically. There’s no reason to change drastically, because I do think we’re very close.”
Updated October 1, 2010
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