DeKALB – P.J. Fleck's message to Northern Illinois this week started 10 years ago.
"I just told them, 'You guys are good enough. Don't have any regrets like I did against Western Illinois,' " Fleck said after Saturday's 41-7 NIU victory against the Leathernecks.
The very first thing Fleck showed his freshmen wide receivers, and then the rest of the Northern Illinois wideouts this week, was his old game footage.
It wasn't to show off his accomplishments or how smooth he looked in his spikes. In fact, it was just one clip. One short and forgettable clip of what turned into a memorable career.
Fleck showed them the first collegiate pass that came his way, 10 years ago, in September, at home, in a loss against Western Illinois.
"Chris Finlen throws me a pass, near the 10-yard-line, a wide-open hitch, could have scored," Fleck said after the win. "The [defensive back] fell down to start.
"It went right through my hands and was picked. First. Pass. Ever."
Three years later, already 0-1 against Western Illinois, Fleck and a much-improved Northern Illinois team lost at home again to the Leathernecks.
"The other one was even worse," Fleck said. "I've pretty much blanked that one out of my memory. That was a hurtful game. That one hurt a lot."
Fleck only touched on that game for a few seconds, with his head down and eyes still in those moments. It was easy to see how that loss to Western Illinois sticks with him. It was the very picture of regret.
Messages don't come any clearer than that. And NIU responded with one of its best offensive games in recent memory, at the same time ending a three-game home losing streak to Western Illinois.
"Coach Kill did a good job of reminding them of the history of Western Illinois and what they've done to Northern Illinois here at this stadium," Fleck said. "They always come hungry. They always come ready to play and they're well-coached. I think our kids were ready for the challenge."
Eight different receivers caught a pass. The offense was remarkably efficient and every one of the six wideouts in Fleck's rotation played a role in the victory.
And the plays they made were important. Willie Clark's 45-yard reception came immediately after a Leatherneck turnover and led to NIU's first touchdown. Martel Moore's 32-yarder set up a Mike Salerno field goal and again was a veteran move to get open. Landon Cox had several key blocks to spring those big Me'co Brown and Chad Spann runs. You think they got the message from Fleck this week?
"It's a special night," Fleck said. "I had never beat them. It was similar to Toledo last year. It was such a sweet feeling. Western's done a great job every time they come here."
This game meant plenty to the current players for NIU. The Huskies got their first win of the season in dominant fashion, electrified a good-sized home crowd and found out more about some of the impressive young players they have.
But this one meant a little more to Fleck. His message got through. No regrets this time.
• John Sahly is a sports reporter for the Daily Chronicle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org