Dan Persa threw for 222 yards and three touchdowns to three different receivers, and Northwestern beat Vanderbilt 23-21 Saturday night in the regular season game between the Big Ten and the Southeastern Conference.
This was Persa's first start with Mike Kafka now gone, and the junior was nearly perfect as he helped ruin the debut of Vanderbilt's new head coach Robbie Caldwell in the season opener for both teams.
Persa was 19 of 21 passing and he also led the Wildcats with 82 yards rushing.
Vanderbilt had plenty of chances to make Caldwell the first Commodores' coach to win his debut since Woody Widenhofer in 1997.
Larry Smith threw for 240 yards and a touchdown with Warren Norman and Zac Stacy each running for touchdowns. But the Commodores missed an extra point, a 48-yard field goal and were stopped on two 2-point conversions — the last with 2:25 left on a bad snap.
Northwestern faced third-and-6 from its own 33 when Persa was hit a yard short of the first down marker by Vandy safety Jay Fullam. But officials flagged him for a high hit and a personal foul, allowing Northwestern to run out the clock even though it looked on replay as if Fullam simply put his shoulder into Persa's shoulder for the stop.
The crowd, a couple thousand short of a sellout at 37,210, booed the officials off the field.
These teams haven't met since 1952 when the game ended in a tie, and this one might've been headed for overtime too if not for Vanderbilt's problems scoring after touchdowns. Northwestern had its own struggles with a blocked field goal and a missed extra point.
The Commodores outgained Northwestern in total offense 432-365. They also came up with two sacks, recovered a Persa fumble and defensive tackle T.J. Greenstone blocked a 27-yard field goal attempt by Stefan Demos and recovered the ball in the fourth quarter.
Caldwell showed he isn't afraid to gamble. He went for it on fourth-and-2 after the blocked field goal, giving the ball to Norman 10 days after arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. Norman, the SEC freshman of the year last season, picked up 10 yards. But the drive stalled, and Ryan Fowler's 48-yard field goal to give Vandy its first lead of the game was wide left.
Stacy gave Vandy one last chance when he scored on a 33-yard run with 2:25 left, and the Commodores lined up for the tie only to snap the ball wide of Smith. The Wildcats also tackled Smith short on a draw with Vandy trying its first 2-point conversion trailing 17-15 after the quarterback's 36-yard TD toss to Brandon Barden at the end of the third quarter.
Persa started very sharp. He completed his first four passes and ran for 42 yards on his first seven carries. His 33-yard TD pass to Jeremy Ebert helped the Wildcats jump out 10-0, a lead they never lost. He also had a 9-yard TD pass to Drake Dunsmore and a 2-yard toss to Josh Rooks for the winning margin.
He was stripped of the ball late in the first half, which Vanderbilt turned into a 4-yard TD by Norman. But Fowler's extra point missed. Fowler kicked a 30-yard field goal as time expired to make it 10-9 at halftime.