DeKalb, Ill. The big-time stage. A BCS road game in front of tens of thousands. Northern Illinois defensive end Alan Baxter has been through it all before.
“It’s crazy,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s why we play college football.”
The Huskies are familiar with the type of environment they will see at 6 p.m. today against Kansas. They’ve won two such games the past two seasons. But this is a different experience.
After opening as seven-point favorites this week – odds that hovered at five points Friday afternoon – it’s clear this program no longer is an unexpected upstart. The Huskies have national respect. Now they must justify it on the field.
“Our guys have lofty goals for our football team,” said NIU coach Dave Doeren, who was on the Jayhawks’ defensive staff from 2002-05. “And the only thing we can control is what we’re going to do this week. That’s all I’m going to think about. That’s all our players are going to talk about. And I think that will put us where we want to be in the long run.”
No one has been bashful about where they want this program to be. The Huskies crave to become college football’s next mid-major darling – the next Boise State or TCU. It’s the message Doeren and athletic director Jeff Compher sold recruits on last winter. It’s come up multiple times in conversations since then.
Tonight is an opportunity to take one step toward those lofty goals. But to get there, a mere win likely isn’t enough. Against a Kansas team picked to finish last in the Big 12, NIU needs to do more than squeak by.
“I don’t look at that kind of stuff,” Doeren said. “We watched the film. We respect who we’re playing. I’m not going to ever go into a game and say that we can’t win this game. We don’t talk like that with our players. We don’t act like that as coaches. So we’ll be competitive all week, and we’ll be competitive (today), and hopefully it comes out the way we want it to.”
Doeren can block out the context with coach speak, but it doesn’t go away.
Senior quarterback Chandler Harnish stopped short of calling tonight’s game a fork in the road. It’s still September. There’s no need to put that kind of pressure on Week 2.
But for the long term, Harnish couldn’t deny tonight’s importance.
“It’s a huge opportunity,” Harnish said. “We’re trying to become a program that is nationally ranked, on the map, giant killers. We want to be a mid-major powerhouse, and to do that you have to play the big dogs. And you have to beat them.
“I realize, with our team, we’ve got to set our goals high because we’re going to be successful. It’s about how successful we want to be though.”