Buffalo hasn’t been to Detroit since before Northern Illinois went to the MAC Championship game year after year. That was only 10 years ago, but what were you doing 10 years ago?
NIU’s made six trips to Ford Field as MAC West champs* since 2008, the year Buffalo upset the hell out of 12th-ranked Ball State 42-24. The Bulls joined the MAC in 1999 and went winless, placed fifth, sixth, winless again, last again, sixth again, fifth, last and third, for once, in the East. Buffalo’s best finish since then came in 2013 when the division was a fight to the finish between UB and BG. (Buffalo didn’t win the game or the division, but it was one hell of a show).
*- Or co-champions of the division; whatever.
That title run in 2008, it wasn’t the cleanest of appearances. If we’re including all the overtimes that the Bulls had to play in, Buffalo basically played a 13 or 14-game schedule before kicking Ball State’s ass. Did those overtime games — the one against Western Michigan, then one against Army the next week, then a 4OT game about a month later and a double-overtime the week after that — ever wear on the team? In a stretch of six games in the middle of the season that included all four of those OT games, Buffalo went 3-1 but then lost 24-21 to a three-win Kent State team in the regular season finale.
Buffalo’s coach at the time, Turner Gill, is still in the game. When he took over at Buffalo, it was actually his first shot at being a head coach at any position. Buffalo showed improvement each year, he won the MAC Coach of the Year Award in 2007, then the big tuna the next.
This’ll be the seventh time in nine years for NIU. Winning the games is one thing (NIU went 3-3 in the six-year run), but what’s impressive is how NIU is just so much better than everybody else at getting to the title game. Sure, NIU had a Heisman finalist in Jordan Lynch who went around giving everybody the People’s Elbow, but NIU’s just been good year after year. And even in years when NIU’s just struggling to move the ball on offense, they’ve just shown to be good enough to win enough games against the right opponents. (Toledo, usually.)
NIU’s been here before, even if a lot of featured players this time around weren’t on the field in 2015 when Bowling Green won 34-14. Some were, but not Marcus Childers, not Spencer Tears, not Max Scharping, not Sutton Smith, not Tre Harbison, not Jalen Embry, not Andrew Gantz, not Jauan Wesley, not Antonio Jones-Davis — you get the point. This scenery, the 5-plus-hour drives from DeKalb, Ill. to and from Detroit for the league title, it’s the standard because that’s what we’ve all grown accustomed to. And they’ll all act like they’ve done this thing before because that’s their job.
One of the biggest differences NIU has in its back pocket for recruiting that Buffalo doesn’t have is a receipt of how the team just keeps popping back up in Detroit for this game. All of the Huskies players were sold a program that is a de facto contender because they’re always in the thick of it. Buffalo, meanwhile, sold everybody the idea of getting there.
Buffalo’s finally there. Many at NIU have other MAC title game experiences that they can compare this one to.
There’s a pretty good chance that the Huskies come back next year.
There’s a pretty good chance that the Bulls don’t have a repeat of this next season.
It’s business as usual for NIU, but on second thought, this is actually the opportunity of a lifetime for both.