Rarely has a team celebrated a Humanitarian Bowl victory as wholeheartedly and with as much joy as the Northern Illinois Huskies celebrated their 40-17 win over Fresno State Saturday in Boise, Idaho.
In the final seconds of the win – NIU’s school-record 11th of the season – Gatorade baths were freely given, coaches’ names were chanted, the Huskie Fight Song was repeated, and repeated, and hugs, smiles and even tears were evident on the faces of . To cap it all off, as the final seconds were counted down, a torrent of snow – worthy of any Huskie postcard – fell on the Bronco Stadium turf, covering the beautiful blue field in white.
Not only was the game a fitting end to one of the best seasons in Northern Illinois history, it gave a 2010 Huskie team coming off a bitter defeat in the final seconds of the Mid-American Conference Championship game, a chance to scream, shout and celebrate together one final time.
“Our motivation was through the roof,” said NIU Interim Head Coach Tom Matukewicz. “It couldn’t have been better. We had a lot to play for. I feel sorry for Fresno because they hit the perfect storm. I tell you, we’d have run through those windows right there, that’s how much we wanted this thing, because of how the thing ended and because everyone was talking about how we were going to fracture and fall apart. Instead it was like fire to steel, it strengthened us.”
As they have all season long, Northern Illinois relied on quarterback Chandler Harnish, tailback Chad Spann and defensive end Jake Coffman to lead the way, with a healthy dose of help from their friends – namely the NIU offensive and defensive lines.
Harnish passed for a season-best 300 yards on 17-of-27 passing and ran for 72 yards on 10 carries. He scored a pair of rushing touchdowns in the first half on runs of seven and 28 yards, and hit fullback Kyle Skarb with a 22-yard scoring toss at the end of the first half to put Northern Illinois ahead 23-10. Harnish was named the NIU Most Valuable Player.
Spann took over in the second half as he added two rushing touchdowns while NIU extended its lead to 40-10 by the start of the fourth quarter. He finished the game with 95 yards on 15 carries.
Coffman, the 26-year-old Marine Corps veteran who returned to play his senior season dreaming of a moment like Saturday night, played the game like it was his last – which it was. He recorded a career high three quarterback sacks, all in the first half, as part of a Huskie defensive effort that included six sacks and 14 tackles for loss. Fresno State gained just 74 yards rushing on 35 carries while NIU piled up 503 yards of total offense and rarely got into third down situations.
The Huskies credited the team effort with producing the dominating victory, NIU’s first in a bowl game since the 2004 Silicon Valley Classic versus Troy. Northern Illinois’ 40 points was its most in a bowl game as a Division I FBS institution.
“[Since the MAC Championship game], the seniors stepped up, Coach Tuke stepped up and all the coaches and team came together,” said Spann.
“[Defensively], we just flew around, we wanted this one, no doubt,” Coffman said. “[Defensive line] Coach Phelps brought us together. We were having so much fun out there flying around. The defensive line did a great job, so did the linebackers and secondary.”
“Today, we were able to get everybody on the same page,” Matukewicz said. “Offense, defense, kicking game, we all came together. This was a team victory. You don’t win nine games in a row without good players. We ran into some adversity and had to come back.”
With Spann swarmed by Fresno State defenders every time he touched the ball in the early-going, Harnish served as the Huskies’ primary rushing threat in the opening half.
The Northern Illinois quarterback, who entered the game with more rushing yards in a season than any Huskie quarterback since Stacey Robinson, scored a pair of rushing touchdowns in the opening half – on runs of seven and 28 yards – as NIU overcame an early 7-0 deficit.
Fresno State took a 7-0 lead on its first possession as quarterback Ryan Colburn engineered a 13-play, 69-yard drive that ended with an 11-yard touchdown pass from Colburn to Jamel Hamler.
NIU responded quickly following a 32-yard kickoff return by Tommy Davis. Harnish drove the Huskies 68 yards in five plays with the big play coming on a 39-yard completion to Martel Moore. Harnish went the final seven yards for the score. Cklamovski’s extra point was wide left and Northern Illinois 7-6 with 3:10 to go in the first quarter.
The Huskie defense forced a three-and-out on FSU’s next possession and after a 20-yard punt by the Bulldogs, Harnish and company went back to work, taking just five plays and 1:25 to go 69 yards. Harnish dashed for the final 28 and Northern Illinois took a 13-7 lead.
Fresno State went three and out again and a 28-yard punt gave NIU the ball on their own 47. After a penalty on NIU, the Huskies were stopped on the Bulldogs’ 28 and had to settle for a 45-yard field goal by Mike Cklamovski and a 16-7 lead.
Fresno State answered with a 45-yard field goal of its own to complete an 11-play, 46-yard drive to the NIU 29-yard line.
Northern Illinois got the ball back with 3:41 left in the half and went to work. Harnish hit Willie Clark for 14 yards and Martel Moore for 21 on the drive before finding fullback Kyle Skarb in the end zone on a 22-yard scoring play. The Huskies took a 23-10 halftime lead.
NIU did not let up in the second half, with Cklamovski booting a career-long 51-yard field goal to give the Huskies a 26-10 lead to close out Northern Illinois’ first possession of the half, after the Huskie defense got a quick stop on FSU’s opening drive.
Spann ended each of NIU’s next two possessions with touchdowns to break Garrett Wolfe’s single season touchdowns record and finish his career as the No. 2 scorer in school history. In between, the Huskie defense earned a huge stop, forcing a Colburn fumble at the NIU eight yard line with Tommy Davis getting the recovery to end FSU’s last serious threat.
By the time Spann scored on an eight-yard run early in the fourth quarter to put the Huskies ahead 40-10, Northern Illinois had asserted its dominance and earned the bowl win.
The victory was especially sweet for 21 Northern Illinois seniors who finished their Huskie careers Saturday.
by Donna Turner