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Northern Illinois tries to get back to normal

DeKALB, Ill. – Northern Illinois junior safety Tracy Wilson kept referring to the “past few weeks” while he spoke after Friday’s practice of what he and his teammates had recently gone through.

At least, that’s what it felt like to him

In actuality, it had only been seven crazy, crazy days.

The Huskies had suffered a crushing loss to Miami in the MAC championship, a game they were favored to win by two-plus touchdowns by, in Detroit on Friday. On Sunday afternoon, they discovered they would be playing in the Humanitarian Bowl against Fresno State in Boise, Idaho, on Dec. 18. That evening, coach Jerry Kill told them at their team banquet he was leaving the program to take over at Minnesota. On Tuesday, linebackers coach Tom Matukewicz was named their new interim coach. And on top of it all, they had to take their finals this week.

It had been a trying week for the Wilson and his teammates. They had experienced a wide range of negative emotions. There was disappointment, frustration, anger and sadness.

What they needed -- and Matukewicz realized it as well as anyone -- was to smile and laugh again. The Huskies had been stuck with a constant frown for seven days. When the Huskies held their first full practice since Kill’s departure on Friday, Matukewicz found a way to get his entire team rejuvenated.

Matukewicz ended practice by pitting freshmen wide receivers and safeties in one-on-one coverage drills. All of the team’s offensive players stood on one sideline and the defensive on the other as they vocally supported their respective unit. When the final pass was heaved, and the defensive back knocked the ball down for an incompletion, the Huskies’ defense sprinted onto the field and jumped on top of each other as they celebrated their victory. The offensive players, also enjoying themselves, performed push-ups.

“Our three goals is to win, to have fun and celebrate one of the best seasons this school has ever had, Matukewicz said. “Basically what I did is, hey, have some enthusiasm drills. … It kind of a way to reward the younger guy and kind of get the older guys juiced a little bit.”

It worked.

“We’re just trying to have some fun out here,” Wilson said. “We experienced a couple things over the last few weeks or last week or whatever. The main thing is we’re trying to come out and have fun, you know. We just got one more game. We won’t let anything kill our season.

“If you got fun, you go play hard, you go play fast, you go play good. That’s all we’re trying to do – just have fun. I like that coach Tuke is doing that and the whole coaching staff. Keeping our minds right. We’re not focused on what happened in the previous couple weeks, last week or whatever. We’re focusing on the future.”

While Kill wasn’t present at Friday’s practice, his name was still on everyone’s lips. His departure had happened so fast and unexpected for many of the Huskies.

“It hurt when coach left because we all loved him,” Northern Illinois senior defensive end Jake Coffman said. “He was our leader. But we definitely moved on, and we wish him the best of luck.”

Senior running back Chad Spann said, “I was a little upset because we thought he would be there for the bowl game. It’s not necessarily that he actually took the job because you know that’s a tremendous opportunity for him. It’s just the timing of it.”

While the team hadn’t practiced since Kill’s announcement, Northern Illinois’ senior leaders made sure to gather the team and talk about what occurred. A lot of the team’s seniors had been in the program when Joe Novak stepped down as the team’s coach and Kill took over three seasons ago.

“Coach [Joe] Novak was the reason I came to school here,” Spann said. “It was hard for me when he left. I know exactly how some of these younger guys were feeling. I reached out to a lot of them. We all did what we could to get everyone back on the same page.”

For Matukewicz, the past few weeks had been just as much of a rollercoaster. Since he accepted the interim position on Tuesday, he had been getting up at 4 a.m. to work and ending his day at 11 p.m. Yet, he felt wide awake.

“It’s basically I feel like I’ve won the lottery,” Matukewicz said. “When I was a little kid for whatever reason, it’s probably because my high school was a difference-maker in my life, I wanted to be a head coach. This is obviously not how you thought it was going to go down, but at the end of the day, I got my little opportunity to try to make a difference on the team. It’s been fun.”