BOCA RATON, Fla. – Coach Rod Carey wants Northern Illinois’ narrative to be that of a group of seniors who won a championship, missed a bowl game, then bounced back with a Mid-American Conference title and a bowl appearance.
But the sixth-year coach said he understands what the narrative likely will be after the Huskies’ 37-13 loss to UAB in the Boca Raton Bowl on Tuesday.
“I think this – it’s a lot harder to get to a bowl than it is to win one,” Carey said after the loss. “We have not won one. I know what the narrative will be with me being 0 for whatever. But what it is about is that we are here, and it’s a reward for a championship team. We want to win, don’t get me wrong. But I’m not going to let the narrative turn into me on this one. If it’s negative, I’ll take it. But the narrative needs to be about these seniors coming from winning a championship, competing for one, not making a bowl game and then winning a championship. That’s what the narrative needs to be on this thing.
“And if you want to write I’m 0-6 in bowl games or whatever it is now, it’s fine. I can take that. I’m a big boy. But it’s really not what it’s about.”
It raises a question that, in one form or another, I’ve been raising all year. What is success for a MAC team? And specifically, what is success for NIU as a program?
After the loss, it’s tempting to say, however glib, success does not include a 37-13 loss in a bowl game.
The streak for Carey and the Huskies in bowl games is no secret – after Tuesday, that’s six losses in six bowl games. It’s the very obvious monkey on the back of the elephant in the room.
But again, what is success? Ten bowls in 11 years? Five bowls in six years under Carey?
What about the MAC titles? This year’s MAC title?
Maybe it’s not the quantifiable. One of the biggest clichés for a coach is to talk about how his team never quits.
For the Huskies, it’s more than a cliché. They came back from down, 29-10, in the MAC championship against Buffalo this season.
Even Tuesday, NIU came out of the half with a seven-minute scoring drive.
But Xavier Ubosi turned into the second coming of Dez Bryant, making seven catches for 227 yards and setting a single-game record for UAB.
When the offense faltered this year, the players on the defense didn’t point fingers, they made plays. Marcus Childers fumbled? No problem, Sutton Smith got a strip sack.
They played for each other – not just words spoken in a news conference after a loss, but actual results on the field.
That’s traceable back to the coach. It’s the sign of a team that wholeheartedly has bought into a philosophy.
“They don’t panic,” Carey said. “And they don’t flinch.”
NIU is a successful program. Carey is at the helm of a successful program. And it doesn’t seem like that should be a controversial statement.
It’s not a program without flaws. It’s not a perfect program. As tends to be the case, those flaws were on full display Tuesday. A complete lack of big-play ability. A secondary that very clearly struggled to defend not only Ubosi but the UAB passing game as a whole – a passing attack that was averaging less than 200 yards a game. Missing Jalen Embry stung – and let’s not forget the injury to Albert Smalls early in the year that set the secondary behind the eight ball practically from the start.
Flaws or no, it is a successful program.
And it wouldn’t be any more successful with a different collection of players or a different coach.