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Northwestern stomps Rice, moves one win from bowl-eligibility

Northwestern wide receiver Jeremy Ebert (11) celebrates with offensive lineman Brian Mulroe (72) after scoring a touchdown in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Rice on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011, in Evanston, Ill. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

For the first time in weeks, quarterback Dan Persa hasn’t had to get an MRI exam or an X-ray after a game.

With Persa throwing a career-high 372 yards on 25-for-32 passing and a career-high-tying four touchdowns, the Wildcats knocked off Rice 28-6 on Saturday at Ryan Field. It was the Wildcats’ third consecutive victory.

Persa may have been picked off twice, but those interceptions don’t sully his numbers, especially coming off a game at Nebraska last week when he left in the second half with a left (non-throwing) shoulder injury. Persa, who took the nasty hit late in the second quarter and then got hit again right before halftime, practiced all week with no ill effects.

“It’s all right, it’s hanging in there,” Persa said of his shoulder. “It’s still attached.”

The Wildcats (5-5) were aiming for their first shutout since the 2007 season opener when they beat Northeastern 27-0 at Ryan Field. The last time NU shut out a Football Bowl Subdivision school was in 1997 when they beat Oklahoma 24-0 in the season opener.

But despite losing the shutout late in the fourth quarter, the Wildcats’ defense is still the reason for the team’s turnaround.

“The difference in our team is the defense, hand’s down,” Persa said. “They’ve really stepped it up the past couple of weeks. They’re the reason why we’re winning now – not the offense.”

Coach Pat Fitzgerald has rotated players in and out of the defensive line and the linebacker corps for the past two or three weeks. The change seems to be working well, keeping the defense sharp and rested.”

The defense, which held Rice (3-7) to 119 yards rushing and 135 yards passing, needs to remain consistent if the Wildcats want to be bowl-eligible. NU needs six wins and the Wildcats have two games to go – Minnesota on Saturday and Michigan State on Nov. 26. Both games are at Ryan Field.

That statistic isn’t lost on Fitzgerald and he isn’t afraid to keep reminding his players that their season – and their college careers – are almost over.

“They see that the sand is running through the hourglass and there is a renewed sense of urgency,” Fitzgerald said. “You’d better believe it’s out there. I was here back in the day when we stunk. We have an expectation here with the way we should play and prepare and that we should play in the postseason. We didn’t get it done in October, but we’re fighting and scratching and clawing to make this a November to remember.”