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2011 Bowl Preview

Northern Illinois Huskies vs Arkansas State Red Wolves

Life is nothing if not a constant progression of changes, but the story of the 2012 Bowl is more than just a story of transition, upheaval and disruption. What catches the eye about this next-to-last game of the bowl season in Mobile, Alabama – played on the night before the BCS National Championship Game – is that it has created a fascinating example of role reversal.

One year ago, the Northern Illinois Huskies were wondering how they were ever going to cope with the loss of their beloved and highly successful head coach. Jerry Kill, right after the Mid-American Conference Championship Game, announced that he would take the open job as the next coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers. NIU entered the Humanitarian Bowl against Fresno State without a permanent head coach in place. The Huskies embraced Kill, the man who built up the program over many years in DeKalb, Illinois. Playing a bowl game without their longtime leader represented a challenge the Huskies had to work hard to overcome. The work wasn’t physical; it was psychological. In a very short period of time, a bunch of 19- and 20-year old athletes had to tear down one frame of mind and build a new architecture of belief.

Improbably yet undeniably, the Huskies answered the call. Northern Illinois played with electricity, verve and tenacity, roaring past Fresno State en route to a 40-17 win and an immensely sweet conclusion to a tumultuous bowl season. The win clearly carried through to the offseason and the just-concluded 2011 regular season, if results are the measure of a mindset. Under new head coach Dave Doeren, Northern Illinois erased a 20-0 deficit to beat Ohio University in the MAC Championship Game. A healthy program is floating on cloud nine as it enters this season’s bowl battle.

It’s the team on the opposite sideline which will give Northern Illinois a look in the mirror, a glimpse of where it was 12 months ago.

The Arkansas State Red Wolves can relate to the 2010 NIU crew. This year’s Sun Belt Conference champion immediately took to the methods of first-year head coach Hugh Freeze, an in-house hire who transformed ASU from pretender to winner in a matter of months. After years upon years of falling short in meaningful moments and season-defining games, the boys from Jonesboro, Arkansas, put all the pieces together. They ran the table in the Sun Belt, winning close early-season games against Western Kentucky (26-22) and Louisiana-Monroe (24-19) en route to an 8-0 league record and an outright championship. This is a nice problem to have for ASU, but a problem it is: The Red Wolves were so outrageously awesome this season that Freeze was snapped up by the Ole Miss Rebels on Monday. Arkansas State is without a coach, just as Northern Illinois was a year ago.

Simply stated, we’ll see how Arkansas State handles a tougher-than-tough coaching situation. The Red Wolves might want to ask Northern Illinois for advice, but the Huskies probably wouldn’t want to offer it in the hours before kickoff.

By: Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer

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