SAN DIEGO – Maybe Northern Illinois fans will unwrap a time machine under their tree this Christmas morning.
They could head forward, long enough to allow them to forget the Huskies’ 55-7 loss to Boise State in the Poinsettia Bowl on Wednesday that was the college football version of the bully stealing Northern Illinois’ lunch money.
Or maybe they could head back in time, before junior quarterback Drew Hare blew out his Achilles at Toledo and made this season impossible to properly judge.
“It’s a game, and we lost this game,” NIU coach Rod Carey said. “It wasn’t a good performance by us, but Boise is a good team, give them credit. We don’t go any further than that. We live one-week lives in college football. When this one’s done, we’ll put it to bed after Christmas and we’ll move on.”
What are Huskie fans to make of a season in which they finished a pedestrian 8-6 – at least, pedestrian by NIU standards – without arguably the team’s best player? Injuries are a part of football, but losing the starter and backup at the most important position on the field changes the dynamic of what a team can do, no matter how much coaches love to preach about “next man up.”
With more stability at quarterback, do the Huskies struggle so badly on offense against Ohio and Bowling Green? Do they put up the stink bomb of a performance that we saw against Boise State?
Fans are only left with
It was an historic Poinsettia Bowl for all the wrong reasons for the Huskies. Boise State set records for most points (55), most points in a half (31), fastest touchdown (58 seconds to open the game) and largest margin of victory (48).
Northern Illinois broke the record for fewest yards in the game with 33, breaking its own record of 60 in its 37-7 loss to TCU in the 2006 game.
Even before the end of the first quarter, everybody sort of understood Boise State was going to win when it built a 21-0 lead. It became a matter of how much the Broncos would win by.
However, even with Hare in at quarterback against the Broncos, it’s hard to see Northern Illinois winning that game. The Broncos dominated the Huskies up front – although having Hare’s arm in there could have prevented Boise from focusing so much on stopping the run.
The narrative heading into this game was it was the first meeting between a pair of Group of 5 heavyweights. Northern Illinois had 65 wins since 2010 and Boise State had 63. Each team had found themselves in big-time bowls – including the Broncos winning the Fiesta Bowl last year.
However, as I said in our podcast in the week leading up to it, this matchup of Boise State (9-4 overall) and Northern Illinois (8-6 overall) felt less like the Thrilla in Manila and more like Floyd Mayweather against Manny Pacquiao – a fight between two teams that weren’t at the peak of their powers.
Instead of a 15-round fight for the ages, Boise State beat the Huskies to a pulp.
I asked Boise State coach Bryan Harsin if the buildup to the game – being billed a battle of Group of 5 powers – made the lopsided victory a little sweeter. Instead of taking the moment to bask in the glow of showing the world who the top dog is in the Group of 5, Harsin took the high road.
“I think the teams going into the game were comparable, if you were looking at statistically over the last four or five years,” he said. “And we obviously looked at those things, but I think tonight we were different. I thought our guys were different and it’s not about (being compared to NIU), it’s not about that. It’s about performing and doing our best and making sure that what we’ve prepared to do, we go out there and we get that done, because we spend a lot of time working on it for three and a half hours.”
There will be ramifications for this game for Northern Illinois and the questions will be asked – perhaps unfairly – of whether the coaching staff needs a shakeup. Would that be an overreaction – considering many of the Huskies’ major playmakers return next season and that Hare was out the second half of the season – or the proper reaction? Time will tell.
However, one ramification for this Poinsettia Bowl for the Huskies comes in the form of the bread-and-butter of college football – recruiting.
Heading into the game, Carey said the Huskies’ third appearance in the Poinsettia Bowl could benefit the recruiting in the coveted world of California high school football.
“We’re here in two or three years, we’re probably going to have to come out here and start recruiting, is probably the first thing it means to us ,” said Carey, who only had three players from California – all of whom were junior college transfers. “We don’t actively recruit out here, but certainly being out here, hopefully more to come in the future, that we will open up that door. It means a lot. The bowl game is exactly what you would think a bowl game would be. It’s a reward.”
Instead, the Huskies have found themselves on the wrong end of blowouts in bowls the past two seasons played in two of the most important states – California and Florida. Not only that, but Boise State – a competitor of Northern Illinois for the New Year’s Day 6 Bowls that has 44 players from California compared to 20 from Idaho – got another boost by their sixth win in seven bowl appearances.
Northern Illinois is at something of a crossroads – is this season a misnomer or a sign that their reign is coming to an end? Do changes need to be made, or is this a storm that must be managed with a level head? Is it time to frantically push the panic button or take a deep breath?
These are questions that will be answered at a later date, but that time machine might come in handy.
• Jesse Severson is a sports writer at the Daily Chronicle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org