BOISE — With a head coach or not, the Northern Illinois Huskies continued what they’ve done all season long in Saturday’s Humanitarian Bowl.
With linebackers coach Tom Matukewicz at the helm, serving as a stopgap between Jerry Kill, who left for Minnesota earlier this month, and new hire Dave Doeren, with Wisconsin until January, the Huskies hardly missed a beat.
In Matukewicz’s first — and only — game leading the Huskies, they delivered a win, downing Fresno State 40-17 at Bronco Stadium. The Huskies finished the season 11-3, the most single-season wins in school history, with fans storming midfield following the Gatorade bath Matukewicz had longed for.
“I’ve always wondered ‘how cold is that?’ It’s cold, but it felt awesome,” Matukewicz said.
The Huskies’ win snapped a three-game bowl losing streak, while the Bulldogs fell to 0-6 in bowl games against non-BCS schools under coach Pat Hill.
With Fresno State’s defense focusing on clamping down on Huskies running back Chad Spann, junior quarterback Chandler Harnish took over.
The dual-threat, who came into the game 16th in the nation in passing efficiency (156.14) and 10th among quarterbacks in rushing (764 yards), got it done in the air and on the ground Saturday. Harnish finished with 300 passing yards and ran for 72 more, scoring the Huskies’ first two touchdowns with runs of 7 and 28 yards.
Harnish finishes the season with 2,530 yards passing (third-best in school history) with 21 touchdowns and only five interceptions.
“I think it’s a by-product of great coaching,” Harnish said. “They put me in fantastic situations. I’m a movement thrower. I like to run the ball. When we keep the defense guessing, that’s when Chad Spann will gash you.”
Spann wasn’t held down for long. He had 52 yards at the half, and had not found the end zone — a rarity. Like he had done all season, however, he found a way. The shifty 5-foot-9 senior scored two touchdowns in the second half, finishing with 22 on the year. He had a game-high 95 yards, and wrapped up his senior campaign with 1,388 yards.
“We all came together, had a successful season, we had a little adversity (losing) the MAC championship, and with our coach leaving, but we brought it all together, the seniors brought it together and coach Tuke stepped up,” Spann said. “That showed up out on the field.”
Northern Illinois’ defense held the Bulldogs to their second-lowest scoring output of the season, posted six sacks and allowed only 74 yards on the ground.
After taking a 7-0 lead on an 11-yard pass from Ryan Colburn to Jamel Hamler with 5 minutes, 25 seconds to go in the first quarter, the Bulldogs could not mount much of a threat. Late in the third quarter, trailing 26-10, Fresno State had the ball at the Northern Illinois 8, but Colburn was hit by Devon Butler and fumbled, with the Huskies’ Tommy Davis recovering at the 11.
For Fresno State, it was another disappointing finish to the season, as the Bulldogs dropped a bowl game for the third straight postseason and are now 11-12 all-time in bowl games.
“There were a few (missed chances), but even with those, I don’t know if that would have made a difference, the way Northern Illinois played,” Hill said.
Matukewicz, on the other hand, was about as happy as any coach could be after winning the Humanitarian Bowl. He will stay on Doeren’s staff next season, but said the experience has been life-changing. When he sat down for the post-game news conference, he said he was going to talk a lot, joking that he would milk all the time as head coach that he can.
“I’m going to find out how much gas is in that jet, because we’re not going to land it, we’re just going to circle around and celebrate,” Matukewicz said.