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Northwestern entered the season without its Heisman-candidate quarterback. Not to worry. Athletic backup Kain Colter is ready

The quarterback who started for Northwestern in its season opener last Saturday at Boston College was not the one whose Heisman candidacy has been festooned on billboards above the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago and along a major thoroughfare in ESPN's hometown of Bristol, Conn. Instead of All--Big Ten senior Dan Persa, who is still recovering from the ruptured right Achilles tendon he suffered last November, the Wildcats went with first-time starter Kain Colter. The sophomore hit on 17 of 24 passes for 197 yards and rushed for 71 yards and a touchdown in a 24--17 victory. "When I come back, [Colter] should still be a large part of the offense," says Persa, who isn't yet confident that he can make the explosive cuts worthy of his Heisman hype.

In the wake of last season's late fade—Northwestern started 7--3 but collapsed in ugly losses to Illinois and Wisconsin after Persa went down—Colter's performance has to be a relief to coach Pat Fitzgerald, who refused to announce last week's starter until game day and intimated to reporters earlier in the week that Persa would be ready, saying, "Your limp could be somebody else's pimp walk." Despite bobbling a fourth-down snap in the red zone and throwing an interception that led to a Boston College touchdown, Colter ran Northwestern's traditional spread comfortably and made a strong case to remain in the lineup even after Persa is cleared to play. "I want to be on the field somewhere," he says.

Colter has the athleticism to play both wideout and running back, positions at which he worked out over the summer. Under center the athletic 6-foot 190-pounder gives Northwestern a good shot at a 3--0 start—with games the next two weeks against FCS Eastern Illinois and Army—before the Big Ten opener on Oct. 1 at Illinois. A fourth straight bowl game is within reach.

Persa, who is widely regarded to be one of college football's strongest players based on his ability to bench-press 385 pounds and to squat-press 550, has been working hard to get back on the field. He is roughly 10 months into a rehab process that, according to the team's medical staff, typically takes 12 to 14. But by the time he's ready, Persa might need a campaign to get his job back—even if Fitzgerald flatly stated "no, no, no" when asked after Saturday's game about a potential quarterback controversy. "I'd rather err on the side of being a week late than 30 seconds early," he says.

For the foreseeable future, Persa's status will be listed as questionable. But the same can no longer be said about who will be starting at quarterback. "Dan's the man, we all want him back," Colter says. "But if he dings [his Achilles] up again, I'm ready to lead the team. I feel like I proved that I can play quarterback."

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TRIPLE OPTION Solid in the win over B.C., Colter, who can also play receiver or running back, might stay in the lineup after Persa returns.