When Northwestern (2-1) plays at No. 24 Illinois (4-0) in the Big Ten Conference opener for both teams Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN2), Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa is expected to play for the first time this season but might protect his body more.

CHAMPAIGN -- Rewind to a first down at the Iowa 20-yard line late last season as Northwestern threatened against the Hawkeyes.

Quarterback Dan Persa got the call from the sideline after completing a 21-yard pass to Mike Trumpy.

"They brought a blitz I hadn't seen,'' Persa said. "I slid away from it, jumped and threw it.''

Vintage Persa. Make something happen, even if it's not textbook drop-back style. He completed the game-winning touchdown to Demetrius Fields with 1 minute 22 seconds left, but Persa crumpled to the ground, grabbing his right Achilles tendon.

"After I threw it, I landed, jumped up again, bouncing to see if he caught it,'' Persa said. When he landed that second time, the Achilles snapped. He said it felt like somebody kicked him in the leg.

"I looked around to see if anybody was close to me,'' Persa said. "I knew it was something bad. I couldn't feel the bottom of my leg. I couldn't move my leg.''

Northwestern won that game against Iowa but lost the final three of last season with Persa on the sidelines, including a 48-27 loss to Illinois at Wrigley Field in November. When Northwestern (2-1) plays at No. 24 Illinois (4-0) in the Big Ten Conference opener for both teams Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN2), Persa is expected to play for the first time this season but might protect his body more.

"I fully anticipate that Dan will play,'' said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald. "How much and all those things are to be determined in how the week goes. He was close against Army (on Sept. 17), and we decided not to play him. That was our decision as coaches. He practiced well last week.''

Whether Persa faces an adjustment to live game speed, Fitzgerald wasn't going to overanalyze it.

"I think the guy is pretty good,'' Fitzgerald said. "I put his picture on a billboard. It's pretty cool to get that kind of guy back.''

Northwestern dubbed Persa as "Chicago's Heisman candidate'' on billboards on the Kennedy Expressway in the city at just outside ESPN studios in Connecticut. The school also sent purple dumbbells to 80 college football reporters this summer to promote Persa's work ethic in the weight room.

The billboard in Chicago changed in mid-September with Persa still on the sideline.

"I focused on coming back at the right time and not trying to rush back into it, not put myself in more danger and put my team in a compromised spot,'' Persa said. "I feel pretty good. I feel like I can play the whole game.''

Illini coach Ron Zook expected Persa to be like the Persa everyone saw last season -- throwing for 2,581 yards and 15 touchdowns with four interceptions while also running 519 yards and nine touchdowns as a first-team all-Big Ten pick by the coaches.

"We've got to assume he's going to run the same way,'' Zook said. 

But Persa would play smart and protect his body more, he said, even if his injury was a freak accident.

"You're going to take a lot of hits in the pocket when you don't have the ball, so when you do have the ball, you want to get as many yards as you can and obviously get down,'' Persa said. "Especially with a fast team like Illinois, you never know where they're coming from. I will get what I can get and get down.''

Illinois ranked fifth in the country while allowing 56.5 yards rushing after four games, but none of them came against run-oriented teams. Or even balanced offenses.

"We played a bunch of teams that wanted to throw the ball,'' Illini defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said.

There's a big difference between Northwestern with Persa and without him, said Koenning.

"In 2-minute situations last year, (Persa) was very dynamic,'' Koenning said. "He kept himself alive against teams that had a lot of NFL players. He's one of the best players in the conference before he got hurt.''

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnSupinie.


A look at Northwestern

Record: 2-1

So far: Defeated Boston College 24-17, def. Eastern Illinois 42-21, lost to Army 21-14.

Coach: Pat Fitzgerald, 36-30 in 6th year at Northwestern and overall.

Players to watch: QB Dan Persa, WR Jeremy Ebert (10 catches, 162 yards, 2 TDs), LB Bryce McNaul (28 tackles, 1 INT).

Did you know? Northwestern was 2-4 in its last six games without Persa.

Quote: "He's not only mentally ready, he's chomping at the bit to play.'' -- Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, on Dan Persa.