Wildcats' Evan Watkins steps to the plate

EVANSTON, Ill. -- During Northwestern's team meeting Sunday, coach Pat Fitzgerald tried to loosen up his new starting quarterback.

"I said, 'Remember when I recruited you and I told you that you were going to start your first college game at Wrigley against the Illini?' " Fitzgerald said. "And he kind of chuckled. I said, 'Just like we scripted, right?' "

Not quite.

The script certainly has changed for Northwestern after it lost star quarterback Dan Persa to a season-ending ruptured Achilles' tendon. Persa, who suffered the injury while throwing the game-winning touchdown pass Saturday against Iowa, underwent successful surgery Saturday night and is expected to make a full recovery by the spring or shortly thereafter.

The loss of Persa thrusts Watkins, a redshirt freshman, into the spotlight. And what a bright spotlight it will be.

Northwestern and Illinois play the first football game at Wrigley Field since 1970 and the first college football game at the Friendly Confines since 1938. Northwestern and Illinois haven't played at Clark & Addison since 1923, a 29-0 Illinois win. ESPN "College GameDay" also will be on site.

Add in the fact that Watkins grew up in Chicago's west suburbs.

"Growing up in the Chicagoland area, playing in Wrigley against an in-state rival, it's a perfect opportunity," Watkins said. "I'm really excited."

It's an opportunity Watkins would have gladly passed up if Persa could have avoided what Fitzgerald called "a freak injury." Watkins talked to Persa the night of Persa's surgery and visited with Persa on Monday at the football offices.

Watkins has tried to absorb as much as he can from the junior quarterback, who will be involved in practice this week and on game day. But Watkins now will lead the offense, beginning in a film-review session tonight.

"He's staying very positive," Watkins said of Persa. "He's been there for me and supporting me. Anything he needs to do to help me be prepared, he will this week, so it's been helpful. ... I just told him how sorry I was for him that it had to end like that. I've got his back, and I'm going to do everything I can for him to lead this team to victories."

Northwestern is no stranger to in-season quarterback changes.

Persa relieved Mike Kafka last year for stretches of two games after Kafka hurt his hamstring. The year before, Kafka relieved C.J. Bacher for two games after Bacher injured his hamstring. Watkins stepped in for Persa three weeks ago at Indiana after Persa suffered a concussion late in the game. On his first play, Watkins fired a 13-yard pass on third-and-8 to set up a field goal.

"He's an extremely talented quarterback," Fitzgerald said. "He's a dual-threat guy with his size at 6-6 and close to 250 pounds. A kid that can run. He's got a great arm, he's got a great understanding of our offense.

"Evan will be ready."

Watkins has appeared in four games this fall, completing 3 of 7 passes with no touchdowns or interceptions. He has only two rushing attempts, a total that will increase Saturday.

Although Watkins admits he's "not Persa-fast" -- Persa leads the team with 519 rush yards and nine touchdowns -- and likely will sit in the pocket more, he's not a plodder, either.

"He moves better than people give him credit for," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "He's going to run around and make some things happen."

Watkins' biggest challenge will be handling the emotions of his first start, especially in such a unique setting. He showed some savvy Monday when asked if he's a Cubs or White Sox fan.

"I'm a Chicago fan," he said.

Likely translation: He's a White Sox fan.

How will Watkins balance his emotions Saturday?

"I'm going to be excited," he said, "but you've got to stay focused and prevent any distractions. Just keep your mind on winning."