IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) --- For a quarterback whose team has lost three straight games, Dan Persa sure scares the heck out of Iowa.
A year ago, the Northwestern quarterback completed 32 of 43 passes for 318 yards, consistently keeping plays alive with his feet against an Iowa defensive line worn out chasing him. Persa capped the day with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to rally the Wildcats past a ranked Hawkeyes squad, 21-17.
Persa tore his Achilles tendon celebrating his final TD pass, but by then he had done enough to make Iowa (3-2, 0-1 Big Ten) remember him.
"He played as well against us last year as any quarterbacks that we have faced, if you go back 13 years," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.
The Hawkeyes have more than Persa to worry about heading into the game Saturday night game against the Wildcats (2-3, 0-2). Penn State held them without a touchdown last week.
Iowa's improved offense suffered a serious setback against the Nittany Lions, reaching the red zone just once in a 13-3 loss that marked its first double-digit loss in four years.
The defense, a cause for concern at points during the season, did its part by keeping Penn State to field goals until the fourth quarter. Cornerback Micah Hyde's late interception in the end zone gave Iowa the ball with a chance to take the lead, but quarterback James Vandenberg's fumble on a sack put the Nittany Lions in position for the game's only touchdown.
"They did a really nice job of mixing things up and not giving us plays down the field. Just kind of making us methodically marching and we weren't the sharpest. That came back to bite us," Vandenberg said. "The whole key is pushing forward from here."
Though Northwestern has taken five of the last six from Iowa, the Wildcats might be just what Vandenberg and the Hawkeyes need to see to turn things around.
Northwestern is 87th in the nation is rushing defense and 97th in pass defense, and it ranks last in the Big Ten in yards allowed at nearly 440 a game.
Worse yet, the Wildcats have failed to stop teams at the worst possible times in each of the last two games.
Illinois put up 21 points in the fourth quarter in its Big Ten opener, beating Northwestern 38-35 on a Nathan Scheelhaase TD run with 13 seconds left. Last week, the Wildcats raced out to a 24-14 halftime lead before Denard Robinson and Michigan rallied for a 42-24 win in Evanston.
The 80 points allowed through two Big Ten games is a troubling sign, but Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald believes that simply executing better could be enough.
"Motivation for this game is that both teams are coming off a loss, both teams are frustrated with the way that they've played most recently and both teams probably feel like they could have won most recently, if they correct some things," Fitzgerald said.
Iowa can set itself up for a nice run if it can beat Northwestern.
The Hawkeyes next face the league's two worst teams, Indiana and Minnesota, before hosting Michigan on Nov. 5.
First, though, they've got to find a way to stop Persa.
The injury Persa suffered against Iowa last year cost him the first three starts of 2011 and wiped away the school's spirited push to make him a serious Heisman Trophy candidate.
He didn't recover fully until last week - in time to throw for a career-high 331 yards.
"Dan's doing great, he's two games back," Fitzgerald said. "He's given us a chance to win."
Though Iowa has faced quarterbacks similar to Persa already this season, the Hawkeyes know from personal experience that Persa can really hurt them.
"With all due respect, I don't want to offend anybody. But Persa is really at a whole different level," Ferentz said. "If you just look at what he's done for their team, there's a real story in itself."