Northern Illinois overcomes adversity

The start to the season was filled with enough adversity to potentially split Northern Illinois apart.

There was an ugly loss to Iowa State in the opener, in which the Huskies failed to get anything going offensively behind quarterback DeMarcus Grady. There was a close win over North Dakota, in which the Huskies led just 16-14 late in the third quarter before winning 23-17. Then there was the illness to coach Jerry Kill, hospitalized the following week following complications from gallbladder surgery.

As Kill lay in a hospital bed for that week in September, his players worried about him and wondered whether he would return to coach the team against Illinois. Kill, of course, never had any doubt, and returned to the sideline to see his team nearly upset the Illini.

That was Sept. 18

The Huskies have not lost since then. After reeling off nine straight wins following a 1-2 start, Northern Illinois (10-2) is ranked No. 25 for the first time since 2003, and is playing its best football since Kill became coach in 2008. They just completed the first undefeated MAC regular season in school history and now head to the MAC championship game Friday night against Miami (Ohio) in Detroit, a game the Huskies are favored to win.

“All the things we went through at the beginning of the season brought the team together,” said running back Chad Spann, who leads the MAC in rushing with 1,239 yards and 20 TDs. “We came together and we all matured as a group and that’s added to our success.”

The week Kill was hospitalized, the players decided they would play for him because they didn’t want to let him down. Players also credit the coaching staff for keeping them focused and not panicking, keeping them updated on Kill’s condition at every step.

“Them showing that calm under pressure is what allowed for the players not to collapse,” kick returner Tommy Davis said.

After that loss to Illinois, the Huskies went on the road and beat Minnesota -- their second win over a Big Ten team in as many seasons.

Of course, the Huskies are right where they expected and most experts expected them to be when the season started. After struggling on offense against the Cyclones, Kill decided to bench Grady in favor of Chandler Harnish. It proved to be a wise decision.

Harnish, the starter last season, had been slow to recover from a knee injury but has lived up to his potential as a dual-threat standout. He ranks second on the team with 761 yards rushing and five touchdowns, and has passed for 1,949 yards and 17 touchdowns.

His ability to run and pass has opened up opportunities for Spann. The Huskies lead the MAC in scoring offense, total offense and rushing offense. Spann says, “It’s turned into a high-profile offense.”

The always understated Kill knows there is still another goal out there, and that is to win the MAC. But one of the biggest goals coming into the season was to help a senior class that went 2-10 in 2007 go 10-2 this season.

Kill has made this program better in each of his three seasons, and will become the first coach in school history to take the Huskies to three straight bowl games.

“It’s fun watching something grow,” Davis said. “My first year here was Coach Kill’s first year here, and the success surprised me a little bit. It’s just the coaching philosophy he has and the way he does things that allows his teams to be successful. It’s great to watch something grow and it’s great to be a part of something grow like this. We’re looking forward to finishing the season strong and completing the journey.”