DeKALB – After the upset loss in the Mid-American Conference Championship against Bowling Green, Northern Illinois’ seniors hope to end their football careers the right way.
A victory over Utah State in Thursday’s Poinsettia Bowl would give NIU’s senior class 47 wins, adding to its school record. The Huskies would also become the first team in school history to win 13 games in a season.
NIU’s seniors have gone to the MAC Championship every season they’ve been in DeKalb, and the Poinsettia Bowl will be their fourth bowl game.
Huskie seniors like offensive tackle Matt Krempel hope to end their career on a high note with a third bowl win, and with these players, everything started on the right foot back in December of 2008. Krempel points back to an official visit he took, which featured a number of other guys who ended up committing.
“We just kind of remembered each other, and really became close with that,” Krempel said. “I think the official visit is really the reason everyone wanted to come here and commit, because it just felt so right.”
Krempel said his class was really the first one where different positions hung out together. Each position group wasn’t its own pod. The offensive linemen would hang out with the defensive linemen, the cornerbacks with the running backs, etc.
“I remember some of the seniors that year actually thought it was kind of weird,” Krempel said. “We really kind of started I’d say a tradition with closeness as a group.”
However, these four or five years haven’t been without adversity. The group of 11 fifth-year seniors and the four nontransfer fourth-year seniors who never redshirted – defensive end Joe Windsor, safety Jimmie Ward, kicker Mathew Sims and running back Akeem Daniels (who will return for a fifth year in 2014 and take a redshirt year this season because of an injury) – has played for three different head coaches.
Jerry Kill, the coach who recruited both the class of 2009 and 2010, left for Minnesota following the Huskies’ loss in the 2010 MAC Championship. Dave Doeren took over in 2011, but took the N.C. State job after the 2012 MAC title game. Rod Carey took his place the next day and would coach the Orange Bowl.
“I think it’s gotten easier every year, just because we’re a player-driven team. We know it’s a business, you can’t blame coaches for what they do, they’re doing things for their families, for the better,” said guard Jared Volk, who was also on the December 2008 visit with Krempel. “So you can’t blame [coaches]. We know we’re all going to be together no matter what when it comes to the end.
“Especially with the coaching changes, that’s when we really come even closer as a family and as a group. We just tell the young guys, ‘Hey, it happens, that’s the kind of conference we’re in. We just have to be able to adjust.’ ”
Ward has used the coaching changes to his advantage. He said he’s picked up something in particular from each coach. He called Carey a hard-nosed coach who gave him the hard edge and taught him how to “finish the fight.”
“I feel like each coach you learn something new about them,” Ward said. “You pick up on their techniques, you pick up something better as a person.”
When asked about the group which has given this program so many good memories, Carey said someone always finds a way to step up – every player to some degree.
Even with quarterback Jordan Lynch, who has provided countless jaw-dropping highlights in his two seasons as a starter, Carey said his leadership is that much stronger. Same with Ward, who was named a third-team Associated Press All-American last week. Lynch was named to the first team as an all-purpose player.
“The individuals make up the collective personality and we’ve got some real characters. I’ll just be honest and I’ve said it a million times, the way they’ve stepped up. Sometimes you don’t know if a guy’s going to step up,” Carey said. “You want him to, but you don’t know if he’s going to, and they do, and you see a different personality come out.
“And you’re not shocked because you’re wanting it, but you’re a little surprised.”