NIU looks to put Orange Bowl in past, build on BCS
''We got a new team, a new identity,'' Lynch said.
They also have high expectations after they busted the BCS party and elbowed their way into a matchup against Florida State in the Orange Bowl. That they lost 31-10 took some of the shine off of what was a fun story, but it doesn't erase the fact that they turned in the most successful season in school history.
Never before had a team from the Mid-American Conference landed in a BCS game, yet there were the Huskies on the big stage after capturing the conference championship and moving into the top 16 in the BCS standings.
Now, after going 12-2, the question is what they'll do for an encore. To that end, coach Rod Carey insisted the first thing was to put it behind them.
''We turned the page a while ago when we started training back in January with the morning workouts and the lifting,'' said Carey, beginning his first full season as head coach. ''It really turned when we got back from the Orange Bowl. The seniors that were on the team that participated in that Orange Bowl, they left room at the team meeting and the juniors moved up to the front row. ... It's their team. It's their time. So we turned the page right there. It was hard, harder than it's been, because you've come off a year last year that was special not only to the community but to the university and especially the team.''
With that in mind, here are five things to know about this year's team.
1. THE LYNCH-PIN: Of course, all talk about Northern Illinois starts with Lynch. He was the one leading the charge as the Huskies grabbed the spotlight, becoming the first player in FBS history to throw for more than 3,000 yards and run for more than 1,500 in a season. Now, he's being pushed as a Heisman Trophy candidate heading into his senior season, his second as a starter. He set FBS records for a quarterback with 1,815 yards rushing and 12 100-yard rushing games, while throwing for 3,138 yards. He also had 25 passing and 19 rushing touchdowns. That doesn't stop teammates from having fun at his expense. ''If we're in a restaurant or something, (we'll say), `Oh, wow, is that Jordan Lynch, the Heisman Trophy candidate,''' offensive lineman Matt Krempel said. ''Kind of point him out in a crowd.''
2. THE NEW COACH: This time last year, Carey was the offensive line coach. Now, he's in charge from the start, after a quick climb last season. He moved up to offensive coordinator after the first game last season when Mike Dunbar left the team for health reasons and then became the head coach on the same day NIU accepted the Orange Bowl invitation, with Dave Doeren leaving for North Carolina State.
3. BUILDING OFF THE BCS: With five straight bowl seasons, the Huskies are no strangers to success. Now, they can also boast a BCS appearance. Carey acknowledged the Orange Bowl run opened some recruiting doors, but it also left NIU in a balancing act. ''It got us into a lot more conversations,'' he said. ''You have to be careful because it's like going to the dance with a girl. And if all of a sudden you end up dancing with another girl too long, the date you brought to the dance isn't going to be there at the end of the night, right? You have to be careful about those conversations, but it certainly got us into more.''
4. LYNCH AND WHO ELSE?: NIU lost leading receiver Martel Moore (1,083 yards), but with Lynch and the entire line back, the offense should be in good shape. There are some question marks on the other side with seven starters gone from a defense that ranked third overall in the conference. ''Why our defense was so good last year was real easy - guys played fresh,'' Carey said. ''Guys rotated in there. ... Now, those role players have to step up into starting roles and they have to perform at a high level. The key behind that is how the young guys step in and play into their role?''
5. FOR OPENERS: Besides the Orange Bowl, the only other loss for Northern Illinois was when it fell 18-17 to Iowa at Soldier Field in the first game. And guess where they open against this year? At Iowa on Aug. 31. ''This is not a revenge game,'' Carey said. ''This is not a rematch. We do not have the same teams. We are not playing at the same place. This is brand new teams going against each other.''
Predicted finish: First in the MAC West in the conference media poll.
Online: AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org/