LAWRENCE — The loss was tough to swallow. Dave Doeren was in his first month on the job. His team had a chance to win. He was playing his former employer, just 40 minutes from where he grew up.
But there he was last September, watching as Kansas quarterback Jordan Webb completed a 6-yard pass to receiver D.J. Beshears in the final seconds, the Jayhawks edging Northern Illinois 45-42 in a wild non-conference shootout.
“That was a game, in my opinion, that we gave away,” said Doeren, whose Northern Illinois program will play host to Kansas on Saturday. “A lot of times, when you lose a football game, the team you’re playing beats ya. It’s really tough when you beat yourself, and I felt like we beat ourselves.”
One year later, Doeren, a Bishop Miege graduate who spent time at Kansas as an assistant under Mark Mangino, has plenty of reasons to feel better. In his first year, the Huskies rebounded from the Kansas loss, won the MAC title and beat Arkansas State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
Only a one-point loss to Iowa in week-one separates Northern Illinois from a 3-0 start this season, and Doeren’s team is coming off a thrilling victory at Army.
But Saturday now provides an opportunity for redemption. Kansas travels to DeKalb, Ill., on Saturday for their road opener. And here is the non-BCS program that will try to drop KU to 1-3.
"The players know that our details weren’t good enough in that game last year,” Doeren said. “I think there’s a lot of things, when you get to that game if you go back in time, on how it went down.”
Doeren is downplaying the significance of this week’s contest. But history — last year’s finish and Doeren’s own past — provide a backdrop for the rematch.
Last year’s victory over Northern Illinois would prove to be the last for second-year KU coach Turner Gill, and when Kansas pink-slipped Gill after the season, Doeren’s name was floated around in the cascade of rumors that accompanies any coaching search.
Doeren expressed interest in the job, but Kansas was in the process of zeroing in on candidates, and the search ended with Charlie Weis a handful of days later.
Doeren, 40, had one year of head-coaching experience then — and he’d also lost to Gill — but his pedigree and history have made him a fast riser.
The coach who once spent a year as an assistant at Shawnee Mission Northwest had been a grad assistant at USC and logged time as an assistant at Montana, Kansas and Wisconsin.
Now he’s trying to build on the success at Northern Illinois.
“I’m looking forward to playing a BCS team at home,” Doeren said earlier this week. “That’s one thing that I haven’t done since I’ve coached here. We haven’t had that kind of team in our stadium yet since I’ve been the head coach."
When the Huskies take the field Saturday, they’ll be protecting a 16-game home winning streak, while Kansas will lug in a 16-game losing streak in games played on the road or at a neutral site.
“Sixteen seems to be the magic number,” Weis said earlier this week.
Weis says he’ll poke his players with the losing-streak stats this week. But Doeren may have unknowingly provided a little bit of bulletin-board material as well.
"We’ve also read that we didn’t win the game, they lost the game,” Weis said. “You use that a little bit.
“Obviously it wasn’t because you played good; it was because they played bad.”
Of course, both teams look quite a bit different these days. Both starting quarterbacks are gone; both defenses are more experienced. Weis is now in Lawrence. And Doeren is no longer the first-year coach in his first month.
“Last year, it kind of felt a little bit different being a first-year head coach,” Doeren said. “This year, I don’t know if I’m wiser or what, but it’s the next team on the schedule, and I want to win it. I don’t care who it is.”