BOISE, Idaho – After Northern Illinois lost a conference title and its head coach, Tom Matukewicz's first objective was to make the Huskies' bowl trip fun.
He constantly cracked jokes. He made the coaches go one-on-one in practice. No matter what happened, Matukewicz was going to take a lighter approach.
"I had a lot to do with the fun part," Matukewicz said. "I wanted them to walk out and have a good time."
The reward? That came Saturday night when the Huskies closed out the best season in school history in resounding fashion.
Quarterback Chandler Harnish ran for two touchdowns and threw for another, and Northern Illinois made Matukewicz a winner in his only game in charge with a 40-17 victory over Fresno State in the Humanitarian Bowl.
Northern Illinois (11-3) earned a school-record 11th victory and ended an emotional two-week stretch that started with a loss to Miami, Ohio in the Mid-American Conference title game, then was compounded 48 hours later by the departure of head coach Jerry Kill for Minnesota.
The players uniformly credited Matukewicz for bringing stability and focus — and a little fun — at a time the Huskies needed it most. He started his postgame comments saying he was going to "milk this thing out" since he'll no longer be the guy in charge. He jokingly told Harnish he was getting an extra postgame meal after paying the coach a compliment.
Lighthearted worked for these Huskies. Any changes that might be coming when Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Doeren is done game planning for the Rose Bowl and becomes the new head coach — with Matukewicz staying on as linebackers coach — were secondary.
That's why the Huskies chanted "Tuke! Tuke!" on the field and doused him with a water bucket in the final seconds, then celebrated on Boise's blue turf as snow started swirling.
"He meant everything to us," Harnish said after NIU won its first bowl game since 2004.
Harnish finished 17 of 26 for 300 yards passing and another 72 yards rushing. It helped his receivers made highlight catches — like Perez Ashford's fingertip grab on the sideline and Willie Clark's mid-route adjustment for 32-yard gain — and Fresno State's defensive line got no pressure on Harnish.
Running back Chad Spann added 95 yards and two touchdowns, giving him 22 rushing TDs on the season and, for now, put him one ahead of Oregon's LaMichael James for most in the country.
And the Huskies were beyond good, they dominated. NIU never punted and scored on seven straight possessions after falling behind 7-0. The only times they were stopped were a pair of failed fourth-down attempts and the end of the game.
They sacked Fresno State quarterback Ryan Colburn six times, including three — all in the first half — by Jake Coffman. Bulldogs' running back Robbie Rouse, who ran for nearly 300 yards in a game earlier this season, was held to 32 yards.
"I told you our motivation was through the roof. ... We would run through those windows right there," Matukewicz said pointing outside to the snow covered field. "That's how bad we wanted this thing because of how the thing ended."
While Matukewicz was happily cracking jokes postgame, Fresno State coach Pat Hill was again looking at a troubling trend. Fresno State (8-5) continued its postseason track of playing up against BCS opponents, but struggling against those from non-automatic qualifying conferences. In its last 11 bowl appearances, the Bulldogs are 4-1 against BCS teams and 0-6 against the others.
And for how much respect Hill has shown Boise, he might not want to come back here for quite a while. This season, the Bulldogs were outscored 91-17 on the blue turf. In their last three trips here, it's 152-27.
Fresno State looked fine early, scoring on its opening drive when Colburn hit Jamal Hamler on an 11-yard TD. Not much went right from there. Colburn threw for 273 yards and added a late TD pass to Rashad Evans.
"We had two bad snapshots this year and they both happened to be in Boise," said Hill, who has dropped three straight bowl games. "You can put that down anyway you want. Both games we played the opponent played at an extremely high level."
After failing on fourth down at the Fresno State 31 on their opening possession, the Huskies were not stopped. They scored the next seven times they touched the ball, getting touchdown runs of 7 and 28 yards from Harnish, and a 22-yard TD pass to Kyle Skarb in the final minute of the first half to take a 23-10 lead.
Micahel Cklamovski added a career-best 51-yard field goal on the Huskies first possession of the second half to extend their lead to 26-10.
Colburn and the Bulldogs looked poised to make one final push, but he was sacked by Devin Butler and fumbled deep in the Huskies end. After Colburn's fumble, the Huskies went 89 yards, capped by Spann's 28-yard dash for a 33-10 lead.
Spann added one more, an 8-yard run, to give the Huskies a 30-point lead. It set a school record for TDs in a season and capped a nearly perfect night for the Huskies.
But before he stepped away, Matukewicz had one more message.
"We better start next season in the Top 25," he said. "If you've got a vote, put us in there."