DeKALB – Whether or not the Northern Illinois football players needed it wasn't clear, but a short and simple competition before and after practice engineered by interim head coach Tom Matukewicz was appreciated by the Huskies.
Before Friday's practice at a snow-surrounded Huskie Stadium, Matukewicz paired up a young offensive lineman against a young defensive lineman and had them go 1-on-1 in front of the entire team, first guy to bring the other to the ground won for his side. After practice, a young wide receiver would go up against a young defensive back on a pattern to the end zone, again in front of the entire team, winner take all with up-downs for the losing side.
And, for the first time in a week after losing both the Mid-American Conference title game and head coach Jerry Kill to Minnesota, NIU players used the word fun after practice.
"We're just trying to have some fun out here," safety Tracy Wilson said. "We've experienced a couple things over the last week, so the main thing is we're just trying to come out here and have fun. We just have one more game. We're trying to not let anything kill our season. We still want to come out and get this win.
"I wouldn't say we need it, but it's good to have. You can't complain about something like that."
Matukewicz emphasized having fun after practice while keeping the team focused on the Dec. 18 Humanitarian Bowl against Fresno State in Boise, Idaho.
"I wanted to make sure that at the end of the day, we walked off that field having some fun," Matukewicz said. "If you're a true freshman, you've been practicing, 13-14 weeks here and you haven't gotten in a game and I wanted to get them a little spotlight, get the older kids kind of something to cheer about and get that enthusiasm.
"You know how it is. You come to work every day, sometimes mixing it up makes everybody feel better."
Matukewicz said he felt the team is focused on the bowl at this point. NIU quarterback Chandler Harnish said he felt like the team has gotten back on board as the week has progressed.
"It was tough to say earlier in the week," Harnish said. "If you would have asked me three days ago, I would have said, 'I don't know.' But the more and more we're going through this process, I think guys are really starting to buy in – again – and realizing that we're a good team and maybe a great team."
With a winter storm supposed to make its way through the area Saturday, where the Huskies will practice before they leave Tuesday for Boise has been a concern for NIU. The Huskies moved today's practice to Northwestern's indoor facility. NIU also is scheduled to practice at Lake Barrington Field House on Monday.
"As long as we continue to have a place to practice, we're good," Matukewicz said.