To usher in the new year of 2013, the Northern Illinois Huskies would earn the opportunity of a lifetime.
Ranked No. 15 in the final BCS Poll, the Huskies earned an automatic qualification to participate in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day. The up-and-coming NIU program would be pitted against the ACC champions, Jimbo Fisher and the No. 12 Florida State Seminoles.
NIU breezed through the 2012 season with a 12-1 record, rattling off 12-straight victories after a 1-point Week 1 loss to Iowa in Chicago. The Huskies finished their impressive streak by topping No. 18 Kent State in a double-overtime instant classic to win the MAC Championship and earn the highest ranking of all non-AQ (automatic qualifier) teams.
A rule in place, which stated that a non-AQ conference champion ranked in the top 16 of the final BCS rankings, vaulted NIU into one of college football’s most prestigious bowls. The Huskies jumped from No. 21 to No. 15 in the poll after their only win over a ranked opponent in 2012, meeting all the qualifications for a trip to Miami.
Led by an offense featuring E.J. Manuel, Devonta Freeman, and Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State traveled down south on US 27 as 13.5-point favorites over the Huskies.
Northern Illinois boasted several star players on its roster too, including free safety Jimmie Ward and ground threat quarterback Jordan Lynch — who finished third in Heisman voting in the following year. Prior to the game, Lynch made a comment that resonated with Florida State players and Seminole fans alike, according to Sporting News.
They’re fast, they’re physical, but they haven’t seen anything like our offense. We play an uptempo pace. We play really fast, a lot of shifting, guys going back and forth each way. It causes a lot of confusion. As soon as we get that rhythm going, it’s pretty hard to stop. We plan on wearing them down. In the fourth quarter, we plan to have them on their knees, and then just keep pounding away.
The “we plan them on their knees” didn’t sit well with the Seminoles, and we’ll get to how Florida State inside linebacker Vince Williams responded to that comment following the game.
Fast forward to January 1, where about 72,000 fans decked in garnet-and-gold and black-and-red flocked to Sun Life Stadium to see if the Huskies could pull off their 13th-straight win in dramatic upset fashion.
One key component that Northern Illinois would play without was head coach Dave Doeren. In two years at the helm, the head coach manufactured a 23-4 record in DeKalb, departing the position prior to the Orange Bowl for the same title at NC State. According to an ESPN feature on Scott Frost, Doeren told Frost in 2017 that spurning the Orange Bowl to focus on his new job in Raleigh was “one of his biggest regrets in coaching.”
Instead, offensive coordinator Rod Carey would serve as the team’s interim coach for the most critical game in program history.
In a predominantly pro-Florida State atmosphere, the Seminoles struck first. On a read option to the left side of the field, the blockers overpowered the NIU defense and senior running back Lonnie Pryor sprinted 60 yards to the house, untouched.
It was a rather quick response by the Huskies, who made their first mark on the scoreboard with 1:41 left in the first quarter. Northern Illinois emphasized getting on the board early rather than risking for a touchdown, electing to kick a 25-yard field goal to reduce the deficit to 7-3.
But weathering the Seminole offensive storm with field goals was like trying to suppress a wildfire with a small bucket of water. Just seconds before halftime, Florida State increased its lead to double-digits on an impressive 6-yard touchdown reception by a leaping Rashad Greene in the back corner of the end zone.
To start the third quarter, Florida State kicker Dustin Hopkins drained a 25-yard chip shot to separate the teams even further, setting an NCAA record with 88 career field goals in the process.
With added pressure to score, Northern Illinois finally responded for its first touchdown of the evening. An 11-yard pass from Jordan Lynch to Martel Moore inched the Huskies closer to the ACC champions, trailing 17-10 with nearly an entire second half to play.
Ward (career-high 14 tackles) and the defense continued halting the Seminole offense, making key stops and providing Lynch and the Huskies opportunities to tie the score at 17 apiece. As about six minutes remained in the third quarter, NIU was situated on the Florida State 23-yard line facing a 3rd-and-8.
That’s when disaster struck.
The Huskies’ offensive line wasn’t doing Lynch any favors, unable to guard a three-man pass rush. Florida State successfully operated with a QB spy the entire contest, preventing Lynch from a dominant rushing performance and forcing him to win with his arm. On this particular play, Lynch scrambled around for ages and threw a desperation pass near the sideline instead of taking a sack or throwing it away. Picked off.
That play represented Northern Illinois’ last valuable offensive opportunity to keep the game within respectable scoring margin. Florida State jumped out to a 24-10 advantage on the first play of the fourth quarter, thanks to a Manuel QB draw on 1st-and-goal.
To seal the envelope and send it back to DeKalb, Pryor closed the game in the same way he opened it — with a long touchdown run. This time, the running back reached pay dirt from 37 yards out with 10:33 left. No more scoring drives would initiate for the rest of the night in Miami, and a dejected Northern Illinois headed back home to a cold climate with an even colder 31-10 defeat.
To say Florida State was prepared for Lynch and the NIU offense is an understatement. Lynch was limited to a season-low 44 rushing yards on 23 carries, while throwing a season-high 41 passes. Only 15 of his attempts were completed, and Northern Illinois adjusting to a passing-centric offense sat excellently with the Seminoles’ defense.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, inside linebacker Vince Williams took Lynch’s comments personally, and it showed on the field. Williams was not afraid to call out the nation’s leader in QB rushing yards after the 21-point victory.
He’s terrible. I can’t believe they tried us like that. They tried our life, man. He’s not good at all. It motivated us a lot. That was straight-up bulletin board material. First of all because of how much success our defense had. We’ve been really, really good and nobody’s ever said anything like that to us. So we were like, ‘this man must have lost his mind.’ What did he do that was good? He didn’t do nothing that was good, we were killing him. That touched me, that hurt. This is my defense. This is me. That’s me out there. He tried our lives, man.
Lynch and the Huskies recovered well from the aftermath of the game, opening the 2013 campaign with a 12-0 record, with Lynch collecting a plethora of Heisman votes during the journey. Even in 2013, Florida State one-upped the Huskies again. The Seminoles finished a spotless 14-0 and claimed the final national championship of the BCS era.
The two programs have not settled it on the field since, but the Huskies will travel to Tallahassee for a Week 4 matchup against a struggling Florida State team. Both colleges currently sit with an unsatisfying 1-2 record as a result of recurring offensive struggles. In games against Power 5 teams, NIU is averaging 6.5 points per game while Florida State is posting a dreary 5 points per contest.
According to Matt Baker of the Tampa Bay Times, Northern Illinois scheduled this game not for vengeance but for financial assistance. The program will reportedly make $1.6 million from this road game, a large fraction of the $8 million in revenue that Huskie football generated a season ago.
The two teams are not at the elite level they reigned at six seasons ago, but both programs are hoping their offenses will finally emerge in order to wipe away a sub-.500 record. Part II of Northern Illinois vs. Florida State kicks off Saturday afternoon from Doak Campbell Stadium at 3:30 p.m. EST.