It was the craziest of times; it was the crappiest of times. That best describes the culmination of the 2012 Northern Illinois Huskies football season. Through their own great play and a series of some unlikely circumstances, NIU found itself as the first ever MAC team to break into a BCS Bowl. The Orange Bowl. So how the Dickens did that happen?
A perfect storm of scenarios played out: undefeated Ohio State was ineligible because of sanctions; No. 12 Nebraska and No. 16 UCLA lost their last games of the season; Big Ten champion Wisconsin and Big East champion Louisville ended up ranked lower than NIU. Put all those ingredients into a crazy NCAA bowl selection process and out comes the unthinkable - my alma mater was going to the biggest game in conference history.
The moment the selection committee announced the Huskies had made the Orange Bowl, I knew two things: I was going to be there in attendance no matter what the cost was, and we had very little chance of winning. NIU had faced one BCS opponent earlier that year in the Iowa Hawkeyes. While the Huskies kept it close and gave us a glimpse of Jordan Lynch's amazing future, NIU eventually fell 18-17. Iowa went on to finish that year 4-8.
Their opponent on New Year's Day was going to be the Florida State Seminoles. The perennial ACC powerhouse was 11-2 and coming off a conference championship win over Georgia Tech. The Seminoles' M.O. that year was that of an extremely talented team, who at times played sporadically.
How talented? That team led all schools in number of players drafted into the NFL with 11. The underclassman that remained followed up the next year going 14-0 and claimed the national title.
It was Florida State's sporadic nature and lack of motivation by not getting a "big name" opponent that I held onto as the Huskies' chance at a Boise-esque upset.
I had my "hope and a prayer" checklist set:
1) Have the defense keep the game close
2) Win the turnover battle
3) Take a big chance at some point.
I didn't make any offensive requirements as it had been the Huskies' strength all year. The offense would do enough. After all, Lynch was the QB. Coming off his performance in the MAC Championship game I thought he had arrived as a big time player. Just as long as those other things played out, I thought maybe, just maybe the Seminoles would feel too much pressure and collapse.
And I'll be damned. For a little more than the opening two quarters, most of this actually happened.
1) Have the defense keep the game close. Check. Florida State was 0-6 on 3rd down conversions and held to seven points with only 11 seconds remaining in the first half.
2) Win the turnover battle. Check. Florida State fumbled on its first possession. NIU had zero turnovers in the first half.
3) Take a big chance at some point. Check. A ballsy fake punt in the first quarter gained 35 yards and got NIU a desperately needed first down.
My plan was coming to fruition. All we needed now was for our Heisman-candidate quarterback to do his thing and the upset might happen! And he did. Unfortunately, it turns out his thing was not playing quarterback at the highest level.
NIU was never going to run the ball that night without first loosening up the defense by passing. It was imperative for the Huskies to get some early completions. The deeper the better. On their third possession, they got that chance.
NIU went three and out twice to start the game. The Seminole defense was pressuring the O-line and receivers. On the first play of their next possession, Martel Moore beat the corner on a double move and was wide open 30 yards down the field. The problem was Lynch threw it 35 yards down the field. And late.
You may only get two or three chances like that in a game against such a tough opponent. Maybe that pass would have changed the complexion of the game. Maybe not. But from then on out, Lynch had a terrible night passing the ball. Constantly late on his throws, he was off on the short routes. He was off on the medium routes. He was off on the long routes.
Lynch Misses short (via Norman Miller)
Lynch Misses Deep (via Norman Miller)
The team hung in there for 3 quarters due largely to a great effort by the defense, but eventually fell 31-10. The loss wasn't disappointing. That was expected. However, it was the night I realized Lynch was not a top level quarterback. That was really disappointing.
Lynch was an amazing dual-threat college quarterback who wowed fans with his rugged and explosive running style. He possessed decent enough passing skills to keep a defense honest. Yet when he needed to be razor sharp on his passes, it just wasn't there. If you took away his running game he became average.
But hey, how many top quarterbacks are there? Most NFL teams will tell you not enough. It's the toughest position in all of sports to play and very few can play it at the very highest level. That night in Miami I had to face the sad reality that my teams quarterback was not one of the very few who can.
There's not enough praise I could place on Jordan Lynch for what he's done for not only NIU, but for the MAC as well. He brought national attention to the program and the conference like never before. More than Khalil Mack, Eric Fisher or even Ben Roethlisberger. He remains my all-time favorite college quarterback. Maybe one day he'll be my favorite professional running back.