It's fitting that in a season of bad breaks and close calls, an act of God played a part in keeping the Northern Illinois football team out of a bowl.
After the 31-21 win over Kent State made the Huskies 5-7 in the final week of the season – along with a series of fortunate events elsewhere in the country – they needed either South Alabama or Louisiana-Lafayette to not pick up their sixth win. If either had lost, the Huskies would have snuck through the bowl backdoor with a losing record because of their strong Academic Progress Rate (APR) and because college football has so many bowls that there wasn't enough non-losing teams to field them for the second year in a row.
However, both the Jaguars (6-6) and the Ragin' Cajuns (6-6) won and the Huskies will spend bowl season at home for the first time since Dan Nicholson was the quarterback in 2007. The streak of consecutive bowl appearances ends at eight.
The Huskies got a glimmer of hope with the controversy around the Minnesota players – temporarily – boycotting any football activities as a result of the suspension of 10 players before agreeing to play in the Holiday Bowl.
The Gophers' fiasco turned out to be the yet another event that pushed the Huskies to the brink of a bowl only to end in disappointment.
Flashback to early October and LSU was originally slated to play Florida on Oct. 8 in Gainesville.
Then Mother Nature threw a fit.
Hurricane Matthew crashed into the the area and postponed the important conference game until Nov. 19 – when LSU was originally supposed to play South Alabama and Florida was to beat up on Presbyterian.
With the two big timers needing to get the SEC game in, they threw cash at the two smaller schools to go away and play each other. Instead of (most likely) losing to LSU, South Alabama instead got to trounce Presbyterian. Without that win the Jaguars wouldn't have gotten to six victories. They also got a special waiver from the NCAA to count the win over Presbyterian (the Jaguars second over an FCS school this season) toward their bowl eligibility.
Without South Alabama getting to six wins or receiving that special waiver, Northern Illinois would have gotten the nod to go somewhere.
However, it's important to remember that if the Huskies got an invite to go somewhere for a bowl, it doesn't mean they'd accept. Well before the potential opening for the Holiday Bowl popped up, Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier said it wasn't a slam dunk they would go to a smaller bowl, considering how depleted the roster had become due to injuries and what the matchup would be, not to mention the cost.
Instead, the chance to make such a decision fell short, thanks partly to a hurricane and the ending of a rare boycott.
A look at the good and bad of this season, along with lingering questions heading into next season:
• Kenny Golladay
There were times this season in which the Huskies offense was pretty tough to watch. However, fans always knew that they were a play away because the Huskies had Golladay on the outside. Coming out of Chicago St. Rita High School without any offers and transferring from North Dakota, Golladay made the most of his two years here. He became the first Huskie ever with two seasons with 1,000-plus receiving yards and became a fan favorite with his one-handed catches. Through the tough season, he gave the Huskies fans a reason to cheer during gloomy stretches.
• Fighting back after 1-6 start
Praising the players for never giving up isn't the first page of the Big Book of Coaches Cliches, but it's up there. However, the Huskies were 1-6 after a brutal triple overtime loss to Central Michigan. A bad season got worse, but credit the Huskies that they kept their slim bowl hopes alive by going 4-1 down the stretch, with the only loss coming against a good Toledo squad. Granted, three of the wins came against the worst teams in the poor MAC East – Buffalo, Bowling Green and Kent State.
• Losing to Western Illinois
Hurricane Matthew wouldn't have mattered if the Huskies would have won any of their close losses – including two (two!) triple overtime losses. However, the most damning loss of all came at home against FCS foe Western Illinois. The Huskies trailed by three touchdowns midway through the third quarter before Anthony Maddie took over and led a rally that fell five points short in the 28-23 loss. If Maddie was the one who took over as the starter after Drew Hare went down for the season in Week 2, it's a good bet the Huskies would have beaten the Leathernecks.
• Shawun Lurry
As a sophomore last season, Lurry set college football on fire with nine interceptions and became a sensation overnight. He came into 2016 with high expectations – both from inside and outside the locker room – and he struggled mightily early. Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey admitted that Lurry may have been trying to do too much during the first part of the season. However, he settled down a little bit, got three interceptions, but seemed like he was always battling an injury. He missed a pair of games – not to mention leaving the game against Central Michigan after coming up with a pick on the first series. Last season, Lurry hinted at the idea about going to the NFL after his junior year, but now he'll most likely have to return looking for a bounce-back senior season.
The Burning Questions Heading Into 2017
• Will Rod Carey be the coach?
Social media was an online version of a mob with pitchforks and torches as the Huskies piled up losses in the beginning of the season and the hashtag #FireRodCarey took on a life of its own. Carey is signed through 2018, so if Northern Illinois decides to cut ties with him, they'd have to pay him a buyout. However, a strong finish the the end of the season will most likely keep Carey's job safe for 2017.
With so many playmakers graduating, though, it could be tough for Carey to get the Huskies back to the 10-win teams of years' past.
• Who is going to be the starting quarterback?
For the second consecutive season, injuries plagued the quarterback spot for the Huskies. A year after walk-on true freshman Tommy Fiedler had to start the MAC Championship, the Huskies' top two quarterbacks went down with season-ending injuries. Redshirt sophomore Ryan Graham looked like Ryan Graham – that is, decent at times and missing open receivers at others. When he went down with a concession, freshman Daniel Santacaterina started and went 2-0 in two road wins, an overtime victory at Eastern Michigan and a comfortable win at Kent State, but also looked shaky at times, too.
Neither Graham nor Santacaterina showed without a doubt that they should be in the driver's seat for the starting spot. Whether it's one of them, one of the stable of quarterbacks who redshirted this year or a junior college transfer, the Huskies will have plenty of questions at the quarterback spot this offseason.
• Jesse Severson is a sports writer for the Daily Chronicle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org