CHAMPAIGN, Ill.--In the third quarter, this wildly entertaining rivalry game between Northwestern and Illinois looked like it would be the launching pad for Dan Persa's renewed Heisman Trophy campaign.
Instead, Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase turned out to be the hero when he scored a touchdown on a 1-yard run with just 13 seconds left, and it was the Illini who walked out of Memorial Stadium with a 38-35 win while "Sweet Home Chicago" blared on the loudspeakers and "The State of Illinois Undefeated Team" flashed on the scoreboard.
Yes, this was a grudge match, and No. 24 Illinois (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) took a couple well deserved and not-so-veiled slaps at Northwestern's "Chicago's Big Ten Team" marketing slogan.
To the winner go the spoils, they say.
Persa finished 10-of-14 passing for 123 yards and four touchdowns in his first game of the 2011 season. But Scheelhaase upstaged him by connecting on 21-of-32 passes for 391 yards and three of his four scores. It was the sophomore's career high in completions, attempts and passing yards.
"Kind of one of those anomaly games," said coach Pat Fitzgerald, who repeatedly called the loss disappointing. "You go 4-for-4 in the red zone, we had three turnovers and we didn't find a way to win."
Northwestern (2-2, 0-1) looked like it was on its way to an emphatic victory when it took a 28-10 lead in the third quarter on a 4-yard pass from Persa to Jeremy Ebert. The offense, coming off of a 14-point snoozer against Army two weeks ago, was re-energized under Persa, who had thrown touchdowns on four of his nine completions to that point, including three scoring strikes to Ebert.
Playing in his first game since tearing his Achilles tendon last November, Persa picked up just where he left off last season. He was a magician on his feet, eluding the grasp of Illinois defenders intent on pressuring him at every opportunity. On one play, Persa ducked the grasp of a lunging Whitney Mercilus and flipped the 265-pounder over his back.
But Persa tweaked his injury when he was hit on a scramble in the fourth quarter, and he was lifted in favor of Kain Colter in what Fitzgerald called precautionary move.
"I just got hit when I was throwing and I felt some pain at the bottom of my heel," said Persa. "I told my coach it was starting to stiffen up and, in the past, that's when steps back have happened, so it was my decision…. It's tough when you want to go back in, but at the same time, you don't want to risk further injury."
This loss cannot be pinned on the offense, however. Illinois, and especially A.J. Jenkins, repeatedly exploited coverage breakdowns in the Northwestern secondary. Jenkins, who finished with 12 catches and a school-record 268 yards, caught 33- and 50-yard touchdown passes from Scheelhaase, and the Illini scored 21 unanswered points in a span of just under 12 minutes to take a 31-28 lead with 6:53 left in the game.
That's when Colter entered the game. The Wildcats turned the ball over on downs on his first possession, but Jason Ford fumbled on the Illini's first play from scrimmage to give the ball right back to Northwestern at the Illinois 36-yard line.
Colter led the Wildcats into the end zone this time, as Jacob Schmidt capped the drive with a 6-yard touchdown run to give them a 35-31 lead with just 1:15 left.
That proved to be too much time the Illini, who drove 69 yards for the winning score.
Scheelhaase again connected with Jenkins for 28 yards on the first play, and later a pass interference penalty in the end zone on NU cornerback Jeravin Matthews, who was covering -- who else? -- Jenkins, gave Illinois a first down at the NU 4.
Scheelhaase took it in three plays later.
Northwestern got one last offensive shot, but its wild, lateral-filled play ended when Colter was tackled at the Illinois 37 after a 26-yard gain, cueing the Chicago-themed songs on the loudspeakers.
Fitzgerald was irked at his secondary for giving up so many big plays.
"Illinois made plays, but when you've got young guys making mistakes, it's on us as coaches," he said.