Down(s) on the farm

DEKALB, Ill. -- The game was still tied, had more than a quarter to be played, but Ann Gross and her three friends had seen enough.

With Huskie Stadium at their backs, its towering lights illuminating their path, they headed back to their dorms, where warm clothes, hot chocolate and ramen noodles awaited.

"It's cold. I'm freezing," said Gross, her words nearly visible by the below freezing temperatures that revealed her breath. "And besides, they're gonna lose anyway."

Fifty feet away, five other girls, draped in hats, gloves and stadium blankets, huddled in a circle, rallying.

"We're not quitters! We're not quitters! We're not quitters!" they yelled to one another before uncorking a bottle of knock-off vodka and passing it around in hopes of further numbing their bodies. "We aren't going anywhere!"

Until they heard the collective groan inside the stadium. Followed by this announcement:


The score made it Toledo 24, Northern Illinois 17 with the fourth quarter yet to be played. But it was enough.

"C'mon, Kathy, let's get out of here," the new leader of the group begged. "I'm freezing."

"Yeah," another girl tacked on. "I don't really even like football that much anyway."

Inside the stadium, the student section emptied like someone was draining a bathtub.

This is the battle that Northern Illinois football coach Joe Novak fights every day of every year. He coaches at a school where football and athletics are not a top priority. Before each game, his players are taped on the same tables that are later used to serve popcorn. His office is so unimpressive that he avoids showing recruits. And his meeting rooms are converted racquetball courts.

"It isn't exactly ideal," said Bill Mallory, a close friend of Novak's who coached at Northern Illinois from 1980-83. "His office is the same one I had. It's a step up from a broom closet."

It's a school with an inferiority complex. A place filled with kids who are here because 1) they couldn't get into the University of Illinois; 2) they couldn't afford the University of Illinois or 3) come from a Chicago-area family that wanted them close to home. The reminder of where they aren't stares them in the face every time they walk through the heart of campus and pass, "Illini Tire."

DeKalb, just 65 miles from downtown Chicago, an urban island in an ocean of cornfields, is known more as the birthplace of supermodel Cindy Crawford and the place where barbed wire was invented than for anything its college football team has ever done. The Huskies haven't been to a bowl game in 21 years and from 1996-1998 suffered through a 23-game losing streak.

But Tuesday night was the chance to change that. Sure, the turnaround is well under way, with the Huskies in the midst of their fifth straight winning season and victories last year over Maryland, Alabama and Iowa State. But the game against Toledo Tuesday night was the chance to take the next step. Beat the Rockets and Northern Illinois would have clinched the MAC West Championship and likely earned its first bowl bid since Reagan was president.

Instead, the Huskies lost, 31-17. After the game there was a deflated Novak, standing in the cramped hallway outside his team's locker room, knowing full well the opportunity had slipped through his hands.

"There's never been a lot of football success here," Novak said. "We don't have a lot of things the other schools have. We opened some eyes with some of the things we've done here. Tonight was the chance to top it all off, to take everything to the next level. And we dropped the ball.

"It's frustrating. It's frustrating as hell."

Perhaps even more so because of the way everything else came together. Novak and school president John Peters took out full-page ads in the student newspaper, encouraging students to attend. The school sent out a mass e-mail on Monday, reminding students about everything that was at stake. An editorial in the paper Tuesday criticized teachers for not canceling night classes, asking, "Wouldn't it be great to say I was there when NIU won the MAC West title in 2004?"

The pregame hyped transferred perfectly to game day. The atmosphere -- although nothing that would make Florida State shake in its Nikes -- was electric. Signs along the main highway into campus read "Huskie Country is a no-fly zone." Despite temperatures in the lower 30s and wind chills some ten degrees below that, several fans in the front row went shirtless. A female fan wore nothing but blue jeans and a velvet red bra.

The students, who filled East Parking Lot 2, tailgating 2 hours before game time, chanted "you suck" at the perfect moment in Gary Glitter's Rock n' Roll Part II. They banged on thundersticks, rang cowbells and spliced wires together to get the siren on a fire truck whale.

And they did it all in front of a national television audience -- a free commercial for the emerging football power. All that was missing was a win.

"It's sad, real sad," area resident Shannon Grace said. "This was supposed to be our night. This was supposed to be the night that everyone remembered. Instead it'll be a disappointment that we'll never forget."

Ask the Northern Illinois diehards and they tell you that's the way it's supposed to be. They compare cheering for the Huskies to cheering for the Chicago Cubs -- wait around long enough and things will fall apart.

It was only fitting then, that several fans attending Tuesday night's game wore Cubs paraphernalia. And after the game, both Toledo head coach Tom Amstutz and Novak hinted about a curse. After all, it was Northern Illinois' 11th straight loss to the Rockets, a team the Huskies haven't beaten since 1989.

"I don't want to start any rumors of a curse," Amstutz said after Tuesday's win, "but things have been going pretty well for us against them."

Said Novak: "I don't believe in jinxes and hexes and all that, but I'm starting to wonder. We just don't match up with these guys."

The bad vibes started early, when Novak got word over the weekend that his star running back, Garrett Wolfe, the eighth-leading rusher in the country, sustained a "non-football related injury" to his eye and had just a 5 percent chance of playing.

The information didn't become public until kickoff. Before the game, one fan wandered through the parking lots waving a giant, "The Wolfe's Den" flag. Another painted his entire body red from head to toe, and in black letters wrote "Wolfe 4 Heisman" on his back. But Wolfe never played. Wasn't even in attendance.

And after the game, there was the giant Wolfe flag, left behind in the East parking lot, tattered and dirty from being walked on and driven over. When asked what he thought of his team's performance and the flag's condition, one Huskies fan said everything you need to know about how quickly DeKalb returned to normal Tuesday night.

"Huh?" the guy said, from behind the wheel of his Ford Explorer. "Sorry, man, can't help you. I've got to get over to Bar One."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com.