MINNEAPOLIS – Devon Butler played like a young man who took the previous week's loss to Illinois, and really more how the Northern Illinois linebackers played in that loss, personally.
Saturday at Minnesota was a different feeling.
"We were just out there having fun," Butler said with a smile.
The obvious big difference was in NIU's tackling, especially from the linebackers, in the Huskies' 34-23 victory over the Golden Gophers.
"It was a big turnaround," Butler said. "The thing we did a lot better today is that I think we were meeting a lot of blocks inside the backfield, so the running back didn't have that two-way go."
NIU defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys had a clear message for his defense this week, and that was to stop Minnesota's ground game. With a banged up secondary that was missing injured safety Tracy Wilson, a player NIU coach Jerry Kill said "may be arguably and I think the kids will tell you, may be the best defensive football player on our team," stopping Minnesota's run became imperative.
Allowing the Golden Gophers to establish the run would have opened up the passing game, but Butler and NIU's linebackers didn't let it happen. Butler, Alex Kube and Tyrone Clark combined for 21 tackles, seven of them solo.
"I think all of the linebackers would tell you they didn't play well last week," Claeys said. "Boy, they sure did tonight. We can't win without their improvement. I think they were all at the right places every time but one time."
Butler's play along with that of the rest of the linebackers, is one more example of a trend for the Huskies this season. If something has gone wrong, NIU has fixed it, often within a week.
NIU has a reliable kicker now in Michael Cklamovski (2 of 2 on field goals). The offensive line has gotten better. Quarterback play has been settled for weeks. Josh Wilber (two punts inside the 20) could be one of the top punters in the Mid-American Conference and special teams once again looks like a strength for the Huskies.
All of the major questions coming out of the Week 1 disaster in Ames, Iowa, have been answered.
"Oh, shoot, defensively we've come a long ways," Claeys said. "We've got to get the passing game stuff worked on with who we have, but a lot of that is us as coaches is just finding what kids to get in in passing situations. We have improved every week, with less mistakes."
"Offensively, our offensive line, receivers, blocking downfield, everything is just really improved and it's making things a lot easier on me and Chandler (Harnish)," running back Chad Spann said.
That's what made NIU's win over Minnesota that much more impressive. There was no luck necessary. It was just a team going out and outplaying its opponent for four quarters.
It was the type of performance that will keep Butler and NIU smiling for a long time.
• John Sahly is the sports editor of the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org