N. Illinois-Fresno St. Preview
Northern Illinois is one victory away from concluding the most successful season in school history. However, the Huskies won't have the man who guided them to this point on the sideline as they look to accomplish that feat.
Trying to overcome a stunning defeat in their most recent contest and the exit of their popular coach are not the only challenges the Huskies face as they meet Fresno State in the Humanitarian Bowl on Saturday in Boise, Idaho.
Jerry Kill guided NIU (10-3) to a school-record third consecutive bowl but won't be around after accepting the head coaching job at Minnesota on Dec. 5. The move came less than 48 hours after the Huskies' nine-game winning streak was snapped with a 26-21 loss to Miami of Ohio in the Mid-American Conference championship game in Detroit.
Though the school named Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Doeren its new head coach Monday, he will stay with the Badgers until they face TCU in the Rose Bowl next month.
Looking to become the first NIU team to win 11 games, linebackers coach Tom Matukewicz will serve as interim coach as the Huskies try to snap a three-game bowl skid since beating Troy 34-21 in the 2004 Silicon Valley Bowl.
"Our hearts were broken in Detroit, then we lost our coach, so we have a choice to make," Matukewicz told the school's official website. "We can all come together as a team or we can start to fracture. We have three goals in Boise - win, have fun and celebrate one of the best seasons in school history."
Huskie players are confident they can overcome those setbacks.
"I don't expect us to go into the tank at all," quarterback Chandler Harnish said. "I expect us to get better."
The Huskies have the talent to back their quarterback's words.
Harnish guides a balanced offense that ranks 13th in nation averaging 37.9 points. The junior broke a 46-year-old school record by amassing 2,991 total yards and matched a season high when he threw for 281 yards and three touchdowns in the MAC title game.
Chad Spann, the MAC player of the year, leads a running game (264.8 yards per game) ranked seventh in the FBS. The senior gained 1,293 yards for his second straight 1,000-yard season, but was held to 54 on 17 carries versus Miami.
Spann rushed for 172 yards on 34 carries in bowl losses to Louisiana Tech and South Florida the last two seasons.
Senior linebacker Alex Kube's 77 tackles leads a defense ranked 16th in the country, giving up 19.1 points per game.
The Huskies expect to face a tough task against a Fresno State squad making its fourth consecutive bowl appearance.
The Bulldogs (8-4) look to conclude their season with a third straight victory after losing to No. 13 Nevada and No. 10 Boise State. Three of their losses have come against ranked opponents.
Fresno State's worst effort of the season came at Boise in a 51-0 loss to the then-No. 3 Broncos on Nov. 19. However, the Bulldogs last bowl victory came on the same blue turf, 40-28 over Georgia Tech in the 2007 Humanitarian Bowl.
Without injured sophomore running back Robbie Rouse (rib), the Bulldogs closed the regular season with a 25-23 home win over bowl-bound Illinois on Dec. 3.
"I'm very proud of this team," coach Pat Hill said. "They battled through a lot and this senior class had built a strong bridge to the future. Not many senior classes can say they've been to four straight bowl games."
Rouse, 13th in the nation averaging 109.7 rushing yards, is expected to play and help lead an offense that averages 30.0 points.
After going 6 of 23 for a season-low 76 yards and two interceptions at Boise State, Ryan Colburn completed 66.1 percent of his passes for 523 yards and three TDs in wins over Idaho and Illinois.
He was 13 of 19 for 126 yards with a touchdown in a 35-28 loss to Wyoming in the 2009 New Mexico Bowl.
Chris Carter, the Western Athletic Conference defensive player of the year, ranks seventh in the nation with 11 sacks. Teammate Logan Harrell has 10 1/2 for a unit that's recorded 37 sacks, tied for sixth in the country.
Linebacker Kyle Knox, receiver Matt Lindsay and linebacker Daniel Salinas did not accompany Fresno State to Boise because they violated rules.
Knox is second on the team with 74 tackles, and Lindsay has 14 catches for 208 yards.
While NIU is making its first appearance in the Humanitarian Bowl, Fresno State is 2-0 in the event.
The schools split their previous four meetings, with the Bulldogs winning 55-7 in the most recent game in 1991.