DETROIT — After boldly going where no Mid-American Conference team has gone before last season, what does Northern Illinois do for an encore?
“You get up and you try to do it again,” new Huskies coach Rod Carey said. “Day by day. One day at a time.”
Coachspeak can temper almost any triumph, but there’s no ruining what was one of college football’s best stories last season as Northern Illinois ran off 12 straight wins and became the first Mid-American Conference team to play in the Orange Bowl. Not even getting flattened in the second half of that game by Florida State can ruin the experience.
The Huskies have won back-to-back MAC titles and were picked to make it three by the 25 voters in the league’s preseason poll, the results of which were announced during MAC Media Day at Ford Field Tuesday.
“In some ways it feels like last season was a lifetime ago,” Carey said. “In other ways it feels like it was last week. We do what we do. We have our recruiting (footprint). There is something about going out and being the champs, being the team that got the recognition. But that was the past, and this team has to go to work. Because every team we play is going to work on knocking us off.
“It did wonders for NIU as a university. It was bigger than just our football program. It was big for the MAC. But I don’t know what changes. It was a shot in the arm, and we have a season to play to try to chase a high level of success all over again.”
One change is Carey’s view. Last year’s coach, Dave Doeren, bolted for NC State just hours after Northern Illinois beat Kent State in double overtime in the MAC title game. Carey was quickly promoted to keep continuity in the program. The Huskies have overcome change on several levels before and will get the chance to do it again.
Too, Carey will have the luxury of entering the season with returning quarterback Jordan Lynch, the MAC Player of the Year in his first year as a starter and one of the most productive dual-threat quarterbacks in the country.
“There’s no manual for this job,” Carey said. “You rely on the good people around you and the players. We have good players. I know how important that is.
“Me personally, I won’t strap it up, won’t make one block or one tackle. I’ll do my best to make sure our team is ready to play every single week. What has gone the last 10 years at NIU has worked pretty well, and we have to keep a good thing going.”
Lynch is the key to keeping it going. He rushed for 1,815 yards, threw for 3,138 and accounted for 44 touchdowns last season as Northern Illinois lost its opener to Iowa then didn’t lose again until the Orange Bowl. The Huskies scored 35 or more points in 10 games, held off a wild Kent State rally in the MAC title game and achieved automatic qualification to the BCS.
Florida State’s fast defense limited Lynch’s production and limited the Huskies to 10 points in the Orange Bowl, but Lynch said he and his teammates came through the spring and summer as anxious as ever to get back to work. The Huskies first game, like last year, is against Iowa.
“The Orange Bowl was still a positive; the season was still a great success,” Lynch said. “It didn’t end the way we wanted it to. It was a close game for three quarters and then I threw an interception. Overall, it was a great experience. It was great for the university and it was great for us to get a taste of the big time.
“I think more people know about the Mid-American Conference than before. That’s a good thing. The bar has been raised for the league and for our program. We have taken off, and we’ll have a target on our backs. But pressure is a privilege, but this team will stay hungry and stay humble.”