DeKALB – The senior quarterback's postgame comments made the first-year coach turn his head.
"I was under the impression that we were going to smile for at least the night about winning the game," Northern Illinois football coach Dave Doeren said.
Nope. Not this week. Since quarterback Chandler Harnish's admission he had moved past Cal Poly, these past seven days have been about one thing: Central Michigan. And for good reason.
During their first meeting this week, the seniors talked about a glaring omission from their careers. Nobody on NIU's roster has won a game at Central Michigan (1-3), one of the toughest places to play in the Mid-American Conference. Few could think of a better way to start the quest for their first MAC title since 1983 than filling that void.
The Huskies (2-2) will try to win their first game in Mount Pleasant, Mich., since 2005 at 2:30 p.m. today when they kick off against the Chippewas at Kelly-Shorts Stadium.
"I think it adds a big chip," senior receiver Nathan Palmer said. "Obviously, we feel like we should be able to win, going up there. But we should feel like that with any team. Obviously, it's going to be hard, because it is their home place. But I think we're going to be all right when we go up there.
"All we've got to do as a team is stay true to our goals."
By now, everyone knows those goals by heart.
Players rarely talked about beating No. 7 Wisconsin, or winning against Kansas on the road against the Big 12. They weren't concerned with the polls, the public opinion or any peripherals threatening to fog their focus.
Except for a brief mention of wanting to take their program to the national level, the discussion of NIU's offseason focused on one thing. For the Huskies, it is MAC championship or bust.
This is just the first game of an eight-week journey. To the fans, media and everyone else outside the program, there are more important matchups later this fall. But, following the trusty cliché of one game at a time, this team isn't thinking about Toledo and Western Michigan now.
“It’s a season-ending goal," Doeren said. "It’s really something that the players probably talk about more than the coaches. The coaches are one week at a time, because they know how you’re not even going to get close to that season-ending goal."
Nothing exists past this week if NIU can't get past this week. Reminders have been posted throughout the Yordon Center this week. Signs reading "1-0" and "Urgency" helped get the point across.
"That means win today," Doeren said.
But perhaps nothing was as effective as Harnish's postgame, smile-clearing comments.
"As soon as they asked Chandler, and he snapped into, 'I haven't won there so this is important to me,' I was like, 'All right, I like that,' " Doeren said. "As everybody's quarterback goes, their team goes. But for us, Chandler is a big part of what we do. So I was really excited to hear his energy and focus toward this game."
NIU'S FIVE KEYS TO VICTORY
1. Composure: While it's unlikely Kelly-Shorts Stadium will be rocking at its maximum annoyance, it's still a difficult venue to play. It will be loud. It will be rowdy. And it's imperative Northern Illinois keeps its composure.
2. Limit mistakes: As the favorite on the road, one of the easiest ways to lose is turnovers and penalties. Avoid making those mistakes and NIU should be in good shape.
3. Third downs: This will be a season-long key. Clearly, with NIU's fastbreak, no-huddle offense, the defense can't allow long drives. When the Huskies defense gets off the field, it can be very good.
4. Harrass Radcliff: CMU quarterback Ryan Radcliff has struggled this season, particularly with taking care of the football. After being pulled last week, you have to wonder how much confidence Radcliff has right now. If NIU can pressure him in the pocket, cut down the time he has to throw and make him uncomfortable, the Chippewas offense will have a miserable game.
5. Continue identity: It wasn't the 51 rushing attempts or 355 rushing yards that were so impressive last week. NIU returned to its identity because it played physical. Taking its first step in the MAC today, that needs to continue.