For the fourth straight December, the NIU Huskies football team is headed to Detroit for the Mid-American Conference Championship in search of their third consecutive crown and a 26th notch in their MAC winning streak. Kickoff is 7 p.m. vs. the Bowling Green Falcons (9-3, 7-1).
But things are different this year.
The No. 14 Huskies bring a spotless 12-0 record to Ford Field, a tally that counts an unparalleled seven road wins. Quarterback Jordan Lynch is not just part of the Heisman conversation; most sportswriters put Lynch in the top two, and some are predicting that the trophy is his.
Meanwhile, with last year’s BCS-busting Orange Bowl appearance still fresh in the minds of proud Huskie fans, a Friday night win pretty much guarantees another New Year’s Day appearance.
- Hard to ignore: The Huskies, playing for the first time under Coach Rod Carey, stayed close to Florida State in the Orange Bowl and were only one score behind (17-10) at the start of the fourth quarter. The Seminoles are No. 1 in the BCS this season, and no team has held them to 17 points in the first three quarters.
Of course, amid the madness, Coach Rod Carey is focused on two things: Bowling Green – and keeping his players focused with him. None was allowed to join the boss during the weekly news conference.
“This week is big not just because of football. This is our last week of classes and then we come back for finals next week. I mean this is a huge crunch time. So they don’t have any time,” Carey said. “They have to study and go to class and they have to come here for football. I told them they probably don’t have much times for girlfriends either.”
And what about Bowling Green?
“We have been going since right after Bowling Green beat Buffalo. We have been going on them nonstop. I’ve said it and I’ll say it again, probably the finest football team we’ve played to date. They are an experienced team – a proud team – and really play the game the right way and are explosive in all three phases of the game,” Carey said.
“It’s going to be a big time challenge for us, and we’re in the middle of getting going right now and kind of finishing up that game plan. You just don’t see a lot of weaknesses in their game,” he added. “It’s going to come down to your fundamentals and preparation and guys making plays, because everybody is going to be lined up in the right spot the whole time.”
Although NIU is three games behind in overall series with Bowling Green, which leads 10-7, the Huskies claimed the last three games. NIU trounced the Falcons 45-14 during their last meeting, played Nov. 8, 2011, in Ohio.
That year, however, Bowling Green went 5-7 with only three MAC wins.
“The systems haven’t changed; they’ve just gotten better,” Carey said. “Out of that two-deep, they have 14 players still on that two-deep today from two years ago. On offense, they have seven coming back from that two-deep.”
“They’re very diverse in their run game with a lot of formations, a lot of different kind of shifts and motions that you’ll have to adjust to,” NIU defensive coordinator Jay Niemann said. “We’ll have to be real sound on all those to make sure we’re lined up right and our guys have their feet set, cleats in the ground, and they’re ready to play and they know what they’re looking at from a key standpoint.”
What’s changed since 2011 for NIU? Oh, yes, the quarterback.
“The kid just never gets rattled,” Carey said.
“You always say as a coach, you never want to seem rattled so your players don’t. It works both ways. Sometimes your players get rattled, and you get a little shook up,” he added. “That’s been a good feed back and forth between coaches and players this year, not just Jordan, but our entire senior class. It’s like, ‘OK, something bad happens. Let’s move on. Let’s get it going.’ It’s unbelievable feeling that way.”
Lynch is “a guy that shows up every single day the same way. He’s always in a good mood, clowning around when he’s in the office, and then when he gets out on the field, it’s all business when things get kicked off,” NIU offensive coordinator Bob Cole said. “That’s the kind of special kids that you never have to worry about. Is he gonna come in this way or that way? He’s the same guy every single day, and the kids on the team feed off that.”
With Lynch’s running ability – this season he’s racked up a whopping 1,755 rushing yards, 20 touchdowns and an NCAA record that broke his own NCAA record – defenses are forced to “commit a lot of people in the box, and that helps out,” Cole added.
“Guys on the outside, they’re seeing a lot more one-on-one coverage this year than I think we’ve seen in the past, and that gives them a chance to go up and make plays. As far as those guys go, Da’Ron (Brown) obviously is having a big year, Tommy (Tommylee Lewis) has done a million different things for us and Juwan Brescacin has come on extremely well in the last couple games,” he said. “Our tight ends are probably the most unsung heroes on our team with all the blocking they do, and they catch the ball well. They do a good job running after the catch.”
With all of the Heisman talk swirling, Lynch is closely following his coach’s “Just the Next Game” playbook.
“I don’t think he’s worried about enhancing his award status. I think he’s worried about winning this game,” Carey said. “Really, all we ever ask for in any game we ever play is a chance in the fourth quarter with the ball. If we’ve got that, we’re doing a pretty good job.”
The fourth quarter, and the second half for that matter, is when Carey’s crew – the defense, particularly – has shined this fall.
Some of those second-half heroics come courtesy of locker room adjustments. Some come from the ages of the young players on the field, Carey said.
“It’s a matter of dealing with 18 to 22-year-olds; when you get them out there at first, they might be a little nervous. Then, once they settle down and get their cleats into the ground, they play pretty good,” he said.
“Jimmie (Ward) has had a phenomenal year and so has Dechane (Durante) and Paris Logan, a guy who in fall camp was running with the twos consistently and now he’s a starter and has probably played the most consistent cornerback play we’ve had,” the coach added. “Then a guy like Jhony Faustin has played really well as a senior.”
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