Created:Tuesday, January 10, 2012 5:30 a.m.CDT

Going out a winner

Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish looks to pass during the first quarter of Sunday's Bowl at Mobile, Ala. (Mike Kitrell – Mobile Press-Register)

MOBILE, Ala. – His storybook ending had come, and Chandler Harnish was still wearing his pads.

Waiting for Arkansas State’s postgame news conference to wrap Sunday night, Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren had time to dry from his Gatorade bath and change into a suit. Safety Dechane Durante, sitting to Harnish’s right, kept his jersey on, but his pads were long gone. Yet Harnish sat there patiently, waiting through his team’s presser with bulked up shoulders.

This was a time for reflection, and NIU’s senior quarterback reflected away.

“This is a storybook ending, the way we came out and beat a great team like Arkansas State,” Harnish said. “That’s something I think we can be very proud of.”

Northern Illinois’ 38-20 win in the Bowl on Sunday night in Mobile, Ala., wasn’t the only thing NIU had to be proud of.

The game ended what might be considered the Huskies’ greatest season ever.

For the second straight season, they had 11 wins and a bowl victory. And, once Harnish took those pads off for the final time, it signaled the end to one of the brilliant individual careers in program history.

It’s unlikely Harnish can be replaced. But he can leave DeKalb knowing his past four seasons have improved NIU’s chances of continuing its success.

“I think it just further solidifies our status in the league and our status around the country as one of the top programs,” NIU athletics director Jeff Compher said. “That’s what we’re trying to build, and it takes not just occasional success, it takes continual success. And this gives us a great chance that we can do that.”

Winning only generates more winning, and Compher has felt its influence.

Before Sunday’s game, Compher said his job has become easier the more NIU accomplishes. As one of the Mid-American Conference’s most attractive teams, NIU is accustomed to playing in front of a national audience. Sunday’s game was on ESPN and the MAC title game against Ohio was on ESPN2.

“People know who we are,” Compher said. “Our brand is out there. I would say that gives us an [entry] into recruiting that we haven’t had before.”

That’s the next step for Doeren. While assistants have spent time on the road recruiting, he said last week he was unable to during the bowl season. Instead, he stayed in DeKalb and led bowl practices when he wasn’t spending time with family over the holidays.

But, as important as this senior class was to NIU, next season seems to be on solid footing because of the players returning, especially on defense.

“It’s going to be on, no doubt,” Doeren said. “These guys are mentally tough. We’re gaining some guys that we redshirted, and a couple guys who are anxious to play again. We’re going to have a great offseason, and our defense is going to be tough to deal with next year.”

Will NIU football win the MAC this season?