DEKALB, Ill. — Northern Illinois defensive end Alan Baxter walked into a finance class the other day and wound up dodging oranges. Not exactly what he was expecting, but, hey, these are unusual times.
His teachers were having fun. And, really, who isn't around campus these days?
The Huskies are headed to the Orange Bowl, a mid-major school some 60 miles west of Chicago that's now crashing the BCS party and creating quite a stir around the country.
To some, they're unwanted guests. To others, they're the quintessential feel-good story, along the lines of Boise State and Texas Christian, or Butler in basketball with a chance to show up the big boys.
Either way, it's been quite a week.
All they did was capture a conference championship, lose a coach and land a golden ticket.
Now, they're headed to Miami to face Florida State on Jan. 1 after going 12-1 and winning their second straight Mid-American Conference title. They're coming with a record-setting quarterback in Jordan Lynch and a debuting head coach in Rod Carey after they squeezed into the top 16 of the final BCS standings.
Wild times? Definitely. And the Huskies are enjoying the moment.
Everyone's just really excited, Baxter said. Never has this happened.
It's the first BCS game for Northern Illinois, the first for a MAC team, and in a town of 44,000 where barbed wire was invented and Cindy Crawford was born, it's all about the Huskies at the moment.
Even so, Baxter wasn't anticipating this.
He was in that finance class on Monday when some teachers yelled out, Hey Alan! Next thing he knew, they were throwing oranges at him.
Usually, Lynch said, It's pretty dead out here.
Probably the craziest 48 hours I've been involved in, defensive end Sean Progar said early in the week.
There was a double overtime win over Kent State for the conference championship, a game in which Lynch set the single-season record for yards rushing by a major college quarterback. And the Huskies found themselves barging into the party when a few more chips fell their way, with Nebraska losing badly in the Big Ten title game and UCLA and Texas both falling over the weekend.
Northern Illinois made the top 16 by 0.0404 points and wound up jumping from 21st to 15th in the BCS standings. Finishing in the top 16 and ahead of the champion of a qualifying conference — they actually placed ahead of two, Big East winner Louisville and Big Ten titlist Wisconsin — meant the Huskies were automatically headed to a BCS game, earning them a date with ACC champion Florida State.
Meanwhile, SEC runner-up Georgia was left out of the BCS after falling just a few yards short of the national title game with a loss to Alabama, while Big 12 co-champion Oklahoma and ACC power Clemson are on the outside looking in. That led to ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit blasting the Huskies' inclusion as an absolute joke and Lynch responding by throwing an orange at the TV, a perfect strike that might have been his best pass.
I was actually dead on with that one, he said. It felt good. It was one of those things disrespecting our family. It was all out of fun, just playing around, throwing oranges.
By then, the Huskies had already learned that Dave Doeren was on his way to North Carolina State and that Carey would be making his head coaching debut at the Orange Bowl, a scenario he would have never envisioned when the season started.
After all, he was the offensive line coach when it began and assumed the coordinator role after the first game when Mike Dunbar left the team for health reasons. Now, he's moving up again after Doeren led NIU to a 23-4 record and MAC championships in each of his two seasons.
My head hasn't stopped spinning, Carey said. You've got a million things going on. You're trying to get a team ready. All those things wrapped up into one and then you put it into a 36-hour window, it's been nuts.