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updated: 8/7/2013 9:56 PM

Northern Illinois looks to take that next step

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There's a reason the name "Boise State" is brought up often in DeKalb these days.

After a three-year run of unprecedented success, Northern Illinois is hoping to take another step and become a team capable of not only landing an invite to a major bowl game but also winning -- something Boise State has done twice.

"When we play these BCS teams or Big Ten teams, it's not good enough anymore just to come close," senior quarterback Jordan Lynch said Wednesday at NIU's media day.

"I think we've been doing that for the last three years or so, losing to Iowa last year by 1 point. If we want to get back on track like that and start having some respect around the nation, I think we have to start finishing some of those games."

The Huskies made their first appearance in the college football big time last January against Florida State in the Orange Bowl. The final result wasn't great, a 31-10 loss, but NIU stayed in the game longer than Notre Dame did against Alabama on the same field in the title game, if that's any consolation.

"The whole trip was fun," said linebacker Michael Santacaterina, from Geneva. "It's hard to think back on a good memory with the sour taste in our mouth from the game. So we're just trying to get that taste out of our mouth come Aug. 31 (the season opener at Iowa)."

Besides the Orange Bowl trip, Northern Illinois is coming off consecutive Mid-American Conference championships, three straight division titles and bowl trips the last five years.

While the players milled about on the field Wednesday, construction continued on an impressive indoor practice facility, which is set to open in October.

With Lynch back among eight returning offensive starters, this is shaping up as another strong year for NIU.

"We still feel like the underdog," receiver Tommylee Lewis said. "Everything is a grind. To be a winner you have to put in the work."

NIU is promoting Lynch as a Heisman Trophy candidate ( His campaign seems like a longshot until checking the stats.

Last season Lynch set an FBS record for rushing yards by a quarterback (1,815) and ranked second in the nation in total offense.

All five starters are back on the offensive line, plus tight end Luke Eakes. Senior Akeem Daniels basically shared the reps last season at tailback, while Lewis was the team's second-leading receiver. The most significant offensive losses were top wideouts Martell Moore and Perez Ashford.

"We have tons of playmakers back there. Our team speed is better than it was last year," said Lynch, who is from Chicago and Mt. Carmel High School "Da'Ron Brown, first-year starter, I think he ran the fastest 40 in the summer, and he really didn't play a lot last year.

"Of course, Tommylee can stretch the field and A.J. Sebastiano. Our tight ends run really well, too."

On defense, the secondary should be strong with All-MAC selection Jimmie Ward back at safety, along with returning starters Dechane Durante and Marlon Moore.

The front seven, though, will be mostly new. Santacaterina is battling sophomore Boomer Mays for the starting spot at middle linebacker.

Redshirt freshman Michael Ippolito (Neuqua Valley) is in the mix for a backup spot on the defensive line, while outside linebacker Bobby Winkel (Marmion) is out with a leg injury.

Lake Zurich's Jacob Brinlee starts fall camp as the No. 2 slot receiver.

One drawback to being a successful program outside the major conferences is the coaches don't last long.

Rod Carey is NIU's fourth head coach in the last seven years. He replaced Dave Doeren, who left for North Carolina State, before the Orange Bowl.

One plus with this year's staff is continuity.

Carey, a first-time head coach, offensive coordinator Bob Cole and defensive coordinator Jay Niemann arrived in DeKalb with Doeren three seasons ago. Jerry Kill took his entire staff with him to Minnesota in 2010.

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