Northern Illinois recovers from Orange Bowl, plots next move

DEKALB, Ill. -- Huskie Stadium is buried in snow on a gray Thursday in February. If the snow doesn’t dissipate by March 20, the start of spring practice, Northern Illinois staffers -- even coaches -- will grab shovels.

But coach Rod Carey is still buried in game video in his modest office. Today, it’s blocking schemes against Central Michigan. Above the computer is a vibrant drawing of an aquarium underneath sunlight from 8-year-old daughter Kennedi.

When Carey is working crazy hours, he sends Kennedi and 5-year-old son Charlie hand-written notes: “Love you. Thinking of you.”  

Across campus, Jordan Lynch is blending in at the student rec center -- red hoodie, black North Face vest, black NIU football hat, anonymous and satisfied. Earlier, he tore into a 6 a.m. turf workout, and he might go back for some late-night lifting.

So this is what an unassuming, BCS-spoiling football program looks like nearly two months after a tough Orange Bowl loss. Actually, this is what it always looks like, Carey said.

This is a MAC party. MAC parties don’t stop.

“We didn’t get to the Orange Bowl by trying to get to the Orange Bowl,” Carey said.  “We got there by worrying about what you do each day.”  

Of course, NIU has new problems. Like, how to get faster, stronger, bigger. Florida State revealed that problem during a 31-10 win on New Year’s Night, fueling the narrative that the big table is reserved for bigger, revenue-producing huskies.

If you subscribe to the Kirk Herbstreit “joke” theory, then this is where NIU belongs, exiled to rural Illinois as a BCS imposter, a nice story … but not too nice.

But one thing to consider before overlooking NIU -- a program with 34 wins in three years might be better in 2013.

Three underclassmen started on the offensive line last year. Lynch enters his second year as the full-time starter, when he Kaepernicked his way to 4,953 total yards and 44 total touchdowns. The offense returns eight starters.

The Huskies could be ranked in the preseason Top 25 for the first time.

Their toughest non-conference opponents are middle-of-the-road Big Ten performers Iowa and Purdue.

The speedy Lynch had trouble turning the corner on elastic FSU defenders, but the corner is his on most days.

Excuse Lynch if he isn’t ready to embrace one-and-done status.

“A lot of people were saying we didn’t belong there,” Lynch said. “All we did was do our job, rack up 12 straight wins and go 12-1 regular season. It’s not our fault … Until the fourth quarter, it was a game.”

Lynch’s new goal: Win the MAC, go back to the BCS and “finish it this time” with a win.

First, the Huskies must process the pain of the FSU loss and channel it for good.

Carey and Lynch lamented the Orange Bowl in different ways. Lynch used the midnight bus ride to the airport to navigate an amalgam of emotion: from encouragement (“I think we had Florida State on their heels until the fourth quarter”) to shock (“We had this great chance on ESPN”) to harsh truth (“Florida State probably has the best athletes in the country”).

Carey went straight to the video. Carey, who replaces now-North Carolina State coach Dave Doeren, always has been a grinder since his days as a Minnesota graduate assistant in the mid-'90s. He watched the replay as soon as the team returned to Illinois.

Clearly, FSU’s speed and athleticism was elite. Carey already knew that. Everyone did. But he also saw missed blocks, catches, throws, tackles. Plays that NIU made all year but didn’t against the Seminoles.

“That kind of showed us a road map -- ‘OK, here’s what we have to do,’ ” Carey said. “We were on the stage we wanted to be on, and we got there with hard work, determination. Now we have to get bigger, stronger, faster. We know what to expect now with opponents like that. We have to match that in our physical preparation in every which way.

“We’re not satisfied just getting there. In my world, in my DNA, it’s not good enough.”

Four- and five-star athletes aren’t pouring into Carey’s office despite the BCS berth.  Improving 40 times will be tough, but quickness off the line can improve, Carey said. The Huskies will change their play without changing a formula concocted from grit and a sense of belonging.

“When you come to NIU, you either really like it or you really don’t,” Carey said. “And that’s a good thing. There’s no gray area.”

The catalyst is Lynch, a native of Mount Greenwood, Ill., who grew up attending White Sox games and got recruited out of Mount Carmel High School as a quarterback by one school, Northern Illinois.

A 15-of-41 passing performance in the Orange Bowl leaves Lynch eager to improve his accuracy, finishing 2012 with a 60.2 completion percentage.

He also aims to avoid distractions, which he learned firsthand in the days before the game.

When describing NIU’s "uptempo" offense to Sporting News, Lynch reportedly said, “We plan on wearing them down. In the fourth quarter, we plan to have them on their knees -- and then just keep pounding away.”

Carey said after the game that Lynch’s quotes were taken out of context.

“I was at the interview,” Carey said then. “He did not make those comments.”

After Lynch rushed for 44 yards on 23 carries -- 103.5 yards less than his average entering the game -- along with 176 passing yards, FSU linebacker Vince Williams called him “terrible.”

When asked last week about the comment, Lynch said he was trying to highlight NIU’s unique offense.

“I think it was something like, they never saw an offense like ours before,” Lynch said. “I was just saying that with the trades and the shifts and the motion, the misdirection we do, because we go so fast -- I never said they couldn’t deal with it or anything like that.”

Carey preferred not to relive the storyline but added, “I said that just because that’s the way I felt.”

Lynch never planned to act “cocky” or take attention from the team or inject the Seminoles with instant motivation, which he says the quotes clearly did.

“If someone did that to our team, it would have motivated us, too,” Lynch said.

But the Orange Bowl hasn’t shaken his confidence. Lynch said the game let NIU know it “can compete with those kind of athletes.”

It’s uncertain whether he’ll get that chance again. Last year’s polls were aligned for NIU to squeeze into the top 16 BCS rankings on Dec. 2. A repeat is hardly guaranteed.

Only on-field performances in six months can ignite the debate, which gives Lynch six months to be himself.

Carey said Lynch is at his best when he’s loose and sarcastic. At last year’s “Black and Red” team dinner modeled after the Oscars, a black-tie affair, Lynch was whispering to his coach “Suck up, Suck up” as Carey introduced his wife from the podium.

In the days after the Orange Bowl, Lynch wasn’t as jovial. Nine-year-old brother Justin noticed, so he jumped in with a from-the-playground pep talk.

You’ll get em’ next year.

You can beat those guys.

Those guys stink.

Lynch later adds he wasn’t sure if his brother used the word “stink,” but that he was just trying to revive his spirit.

It’s exactly what Lynch needed to hear.

“Sometimes people take things way too seriously,” Lynch said.

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