Northern Illinois RB Chad Spann

The Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho -- On a Friday night in Detroit two weeks ago, Northern Illinois saw what would have been its first Mid-American Conference title in nearly 30 years slip away. By Sunday, its head coach was headed for the Big Ten and a job at Minnesota.

"It was rough. We got our hearts ripped out on Friday and we lost our coach on Sunday,'' NIU interim head coach Tom Matukewicz said. "You're sitting there looking at each other and no one knows what to do on Monday, and all of a sudden that clutter gets in about what-ifs.''

So for the past two weeks, it's been Matukewicz's job to settle the Huskies' turbulence and try to get their focus on capping what could be the most successful season in NIU's history if they can beat Fresno State on Saturday in the Humanitarian Bowl.

He won't be the head guy when next fall arrives. That job is going to Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Doeren, who will take over the Huskies program after the Rose Bowl. But Matukewicz is sticking around, returning to his job as linebackers coach next season following the Huskies' third consecutive bowl appearance.

His players appreciate what Matukewicz, 37, has tried to do during the past two weeks to bring in a little bit of normalcy during this rough stretch. "The transition has been a lot better than a lot of us expected,'' NIU quarterback Chandler Harnish said.

Northern Illinois (10-3) probably should be playing in a different bowl as the MAC champion. All they needed was to stop a fourth-and-20 against Miami (Ohio) in the conference title game with less than 2 minutes left and the Huskies could have claimed their first league crown since 1983. Instead, Miami QB Austin Boucher found Chris Givens for 31 yards and two plays later hit Adrian Robinson on a 33-yard touchdown strike to give the RedHawks a 26-21 victory and end the Huskies' nine-game win streak.

It was a gut-wrenching dagger, only amplified by head coach Jerry Kill's departure just a couple of days later. "Focus is the best way to go through change and you can't focus on things you can't control, focus on the things we can control and that's our attitude,'' Matukewicz said.

The focus for the Huskies the past two weeks has been figuring out what happened to its offense in the MAC title game, a unit that was averaging 46 points during a nine-game streak that was stymied by the RedHawks in the biggest game of the season. Running back Chad Spann saw his streak of a touchdown in 11 consecutive games end against Miami when he was held to 54 yards rushing, his second-lowest total of the season. Illinois was the only other team to stop the 5-foot-9, 200-pound back, holding him to 15 yards rushing back in September.

Still, Spann finished with 20 rushing touchdowns this season, tied for second in the country behind Oregon's LaMichael James, and was the MAC offensive player of the year. He has 39 rushing TDs the last two seasons.

"They're a very good rushing offense. They've put up some great numbers and they've got some phenomenal athletes,'' Fresno State defensive end Chris Carter said. "We have small running backs ourselves, so I'm not going to judge anybody on their size. If they can run the ball, that's all that matters.''

Returning to the blue turf in Boise might bring back some ugly memories for the Bulldogs, who were here just a month ago and were shut out for the first time in a dozen years in a 51-0 loss to Boise State. But Boise's been good to Fresno State (8-4) in the postseason. The Bulldogs, working on a streak of 11 bowl trips in 12 years, are 2-0 in the Humanitarian Bowl -- and it's other name incarnations -- beating Virginia in 2004 and Georgia Tech in 2007.

The Bulldogs will be a little short-handed on defense, but should get their best offensive player back. Starting linebacker Kyle Knox and backup linebacker Daniel Salinas didn't even make the trip, suspended for violating team rules. Reserve receiver Matt Lindsey also was suspended.

But Fresno State expects running back Robbie Rouse to play after he missed the regular-season finale against Illinois following hand surgery. Rouse needs just nine yards to crack 1,000 on the season, most of them coming during a four-game stretch in the middle of the year when Rouse had games of 286 versus Louisiana Tech and 217 versus Nevada.

Asked what he knew of the Bulldogs before starting his scouting, Matukewicz cracked, "I would've said that I know [Fresno State head coach] Pat Hill has a sweet mustache.'' But Matukewicz also understands that three of Fresno State's four losses this season are to teams ranked in the Top 25.

"We haven't really been able to zero it in like we are during the regular season, but the motivation to win is very high,'' Hill said. "They're trying to win 11 games and we're trying to win nine. That's a lot of wins in college football in this day and age. The physical preparation is over; now, it's just getting ready mentally and knowing what they're going to do.''

Fresno State (8-4) vs. Northern Illinois (10-3), 5:30 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN

  • Series Record -- Tied 2-2
  • Last Meeting -- 1991, Fresno State 55-7

What's at Stake
Every three years it seems Fresno State is destined for a bowl trip to Boise. This year is no different, but comes with the added bonus of the Bulldogs trying to make amends for the last time they stepped on the blue turf and were whacked, 51-0, by Boise State in late November. Northern Illinois is in a whirlwind of change with head coach Jerry Kill leaving to take the head job at Minnesota and his replacement, Dave Doeren, busy prepping Wisconsin's defense for the Rose Bowl. That leaves interim head coach Tom Matukewicz responsible for getting the Huskies to care about their third consecutive bowl appearance.

Key Matchup
Fresno State's defense vs. Northern Illinois' offense. The Huskies offense was rolling along averaging 46.2 points during their nine-game winning streak heading into the MAC title game against Miami (Ohio). But NIU's offense struggled with a conference championship on the line and was held to less than 22 points for just the second time all season. Fresno State's defense rebounded from being ripped apart by Boise State to hold Idaho to 20 points and Illinois to 23 in the final two games of the season.

Players to Watch
Fresno State -- RB Robbie Rouse had an incredible four-game stretch in the middle of the season that included 286 yards against Louisiana Tech, the second-highest total in school history, and 217 against Nevada. He missed the season finale against Illinois with an injury, but is expected to play against NIU.

Northern Illinois -- RB Chad Spann, the engine to the Huskies record-setting offense. During one stretch of the regular season, Spann scored a TD in 11 consecutive games, part of his school-record 20 rushing TDs this season. Miami managed to slow down Spann in the MAC title game, holding him to just 54 yards rushing and, more importantly, keeping him out of the end zone.

Facts & Figures
Fresno State is 11-11 all-time in bowl games but is 2-0 on the blue turf in Boise, beating Virginia in 2004 and Georgia Tech in 2007. ... Fresno State DE Chris Carter was named the WAC defensive player of the year after leading the conference with 11 sacks -- good for seventh nationally. ... Northern Illinois already has set school records for points, offensive yards, first downs and offensive touchdowns. A win will add another: 11 victories in a season.