Dan Persa and Jeremy Ebert prepped for crisp fall days like this on warm summer nights. They would meet up with teammates at Northwestern's indoor field and practice routes against every conceivable coverage.
"We know what the other is thinking," Persa said after NU's 28-6 victory over Rice, "so we know how the other will react."
OK, that might explain Persa's 90-yard strike to Ebert, the second-longest in school history after a 94-yard completion from Mitch Anderson to Jim Lash in 1972.
It was an option route, and Ebert cut left into open space to make the catch at NU's 34-yard line. Then he motored past safety Tanner Leland and used his sub-4.5 speed to take it home.
"It's a pretty surreal feeling," he said, "to see (nothing but) green grass in front of you."
But can the Persa-Ebert synchronicity possibly explain the one-armed catch that NU coach Pat Fitzgerald called "ridiculous"?
While out in a pattern, Ebert got turned around. At the instant he looked up, the ball landed in his rib cage, and he held on for a 33-yard grab.
"I ended up being like a ballerina out there," said Ebert, who made seven catches for 208 yards — besting his previous high of 147 receiving yards from seven days earlier.
The Persa-Ebert combo propelled the Wildcats to a third straight victory. At 5-5, all they need to do is beat Minnesota or Michigan State to become bowl eligible.
The Big Ten, though, already has eight bowl-eligible teams and might not get two in the BCS. But that's a topic for another time, not on a day in which the Wildcats enjoyed a rare stress-free victory.
"A very business-like performance," Fitzgerald called it.
Fitzgerald attributed his team's surge to attitude: "We were close in a lot of those (losses), but nobody likes to be close. When that happens, you can go one of two ways: Start pointing fingers and blame people or look inward.
"I have a poem that I love: 'The Man in the Glass (by Peter Dale Wimbrow Sr.).' You look in the mirror and say: 'What am I going to do about it?'"
NU's passing game produced four touchdowns and averaged 11.7 yards per attempt, but Persa said: "The defense is the reason we're winning now, not the offense."
Linebacker David Nwabuisi's response: "I disagree with that. He's being modest. The offense is definitely doing its job."
NU's defense shut down Rice (3-7) until the Owls' final drive. Rice gained 43 yards on a trick play — receiver Jordan Taylor fired the pass — and then scored on a 9-yard run to spoil the shutout bid.
Nwabuisi said NU coaches have simplified the defensive game plan and removed some checks, a response to having a secondary that was confused against Michigan and Iowa.
"We're all on the same page these days," Nwabuisi said.
Except regarding who deserves the most credit for NU's turnaround.
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