Dan Persa, Northwestern offense healthy, but defense is hurting

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Northwestern’s Dan Persa (7) carries as Penn State’s Sean Stanley (90) gives chase during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 22, 2011, in Evanston, Ill. Penn State defeated Northwestern 34-24. (AP Photo/Jim Prisching)

HOUSTON – Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa accepted having a 63-year-old monkey on his back, but he’d like to get rid of it.

“People talk about it during the bowl season a lot, but we want to bring it to light and show that it is embarrassing and that we want to get rid of it,” Persa said. “We always talked about it, but to bring it to light and have someone carry it around takes the subconscious thing out of it.”

So when the Wildcats (6-6) face Texas A&M on Saturday in the Meineke Car Care Bowl at Reliant Stadium, Persa will have one last chance to toss that monkey aside for good.

Persa struggled for most of the season with his mobility as he tried to come back from a ruptured right Achilles tendon that ended his 2010 season. But Persa said his mobility is much better now, a month after the regular season ended against Michigan State on Nov. 26.

The Wildcats’ offense is healthy, but the defense has taken its hits on the injured list.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald said redshirt freshman Daniel Jones and Demetrius Dugar will alternate in replacing cornerback Jordan Mabin, who suffered a season-ending shoulder and pectoral injury against Michigan State.

Jones took over for Mabin against the Spartans but blew his coverage on two Spartans touchdowns and on another long pass play from Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins.

“The kid is dedicated, and he has continued to progress,” safety Brian Peters said. “He’s learned quickly, and he’s had to. He didn’t have a start under his belt.

“We were talking about [the Michigan State game] the other night. He’s not happy about [the blown coverages]. When you’re in the No. 2 spot, you always know you’re one play away, and sometimes you don’t always approach it that way.”

Brian Arnfelt will be in the defensive-line rotation in place of Niko Mafuli, who broke his leg in practice on Dec. 10.

While injuries and a stuffed monkey are the most talked-about topics surrounding the Wildcats, Texas A&M is a team in flux.

“We’ve had some adversity to deal with this whole year, particularly this past week,” Aggies interim coach Tim DeRuyter said, “but it has really galvanized our team.”

DeRuyter, the Aggies’ defensive coordinator, took over when Mike Sherman was fired. The Aggies went a disappointing 6-6 after starting the season ranked in the top 10.

Then DeRuyter was hired by Fresno State, and the Aggies hired Kevin Sumlin away from Houston.

And tragedy hit the Aggies when backup offensive lineman Joe Villavisencio was killed in a car accident Dec. 22 while driving home to Jacksonville, Texas, for the holidays.

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