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 for the Orange Bowl, a mid-major school some 60 miles west of Chicago that is crashing the BCS party and creating quite a stir around the country.
To some, they are unwanted guests. To others, they are the quintessential feel-good story, along the lines of Boise State and TCU, with a chance to show up the big boys.
Either way, it has been quite a week.
All the Huskies did was win a conference championship, lose a coach and land a golden ticket.
Now, they are headed for Miami to face Florida State on Jan. 1 after going 12-1 and winning their second consecutive Mid-American Conference title. They are coming with a record-setting quarterback in Jordan Lynch and a novice coach in Rod Carey after they squeezed into the top 16 of the final BCS rankings.
Wild times? Definitely. And the Huskies are enjoying the moment.
"Everyone's just really excited," Baxter said. "Never has this happened."
It is 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 is all about the Huskies at the moment.
Even so, Baxter
He was in that finance class 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 44-37 double-overtime victory over Kent State for the MAC championship, a game in which Lynch set the 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.
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 a date with Atlantic Coast Conference champion Florida State.
Meanwhile, Southeastern Conference runner-up Georgia was left out of the BCS after falling 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.
"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.
Carey was the offensive-line coach when the season began and assumed the coordinator role after the first game when Mike Dunbar left for health reasons. Now, he is 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."
It hasn't always been this way, and if anyone can appreciate just how far the program has come, it is former coach Joe Novak.
It is fair to say he wasn't thinking about a major bowl when he took over in 1996. Back then, he was just trying to collect a few wins -- and it wasn't easy.
The Huskies went 1-10 in Novak's first year after finishing with a losing mark the previous five, and the record actually got worse the following season at 0-11. Things weren't much better, either, in 1998 at 2-9.
"Most of the western suburb high schools had better facilities than Northern Illinois did," Novak said. "(Our old offices) were a joke. It was awful, but you know what we did? We kind of used that as a chip on our shoulder to be honest with you and we made do without it. From Day 1, I started right out saying we needed facilities."
Over time, that changed. So did the mindset in general.
From 1969-99, Northern Illinois had only seven winning seasons. Only twice since then have the Huskies have failed to finish above .500.
"We had to clean it out, to be honest with you," said Novak, 63-76 in 12 seasons. "We got rid of some players. To start my second year in 1997, I think we probably were legitimately the worst Division I football program in the country. I'm not proud of that, but it's a fact."
In 2003, with a future Pro Bowl running back in Michael Turner leading the way as a senior, the Huskies won at Alabama and knocked off Maryland and Iowa State on the way to a 10-2 record. They followed that up the next year by going 9-3.
Even after they managed only two wins in 2007 before Novak retired, NIU didn't stay down long.
The Huskies won 11 games in Jerry Kill's third and final season before he left for Minnesota. They followed that up with 11 last year under Doeren, who was Wisconsin's defensive coordinator, and their only loss this season was the opener to Iowa at Soldier Field in a game they led until the end.
Now they are in new territory.
For the players who got passed over by the major programs, there is a feeling of vindication. Take Progar, for example.
He committed to play for Lloyd Carr at Michigan during his junior year at Glenbrook South High near Chicago, only he never did suit up for the Wolverines. Carr retired after the 2007 season, and Progar said he never heard from Rich Rodriguez so he had to move on. Now he is in a BCS game, only he will be wearing cardinal and black instead of maize and blue.
"It's crazy. I didn't come here expecting that, but I knew the program was on the rise," he said. "Two MAC championships in a row, I couldn't ask for more. My last game I'll ever play here is a BCS game. It's unreal. I'm still trying to process it."