NIU basking in Orange Bowl attention
DEKALB -- This is a good time to be associated with Northern Illinois University.
The Huskies are headed to Miami to play Florida State in the prestigious Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, and the team, students, fan base and alumni are pumped.
It's the first time a team from the Mid-American Conference has played in a BCS Bowl, a stunning accomplishment for the mid-major school and league.
"It validates who we are as an institution, who we are as a football program," said athletic director Jeff Compher. "It puts us in a different mindset as to how people look at us. We've legitimized ourselves in a way. That means a lot to our alums. I've told people you can hang your diploma, fly the flag, do those things and feel real good about it, and they are."
Compher attended a meeting last week where he learned something interesting.
"Since the (Orange Bowl) announcement, same period as last year, applications to the university have increased by 33 percent," Compher said. "Obviously it's helped from an interest perspective for people that didn't know anything about Northern Illinois University to see what a great place this is."
The two bookstores on campus are selling Orange Bowl merchandise and it's pretty well picked over. One, the Village Commons book store, has posted a sign near one of the cash registers saying more items have been ordered.
One of the biggest sellers has been the "Kirk Herbstreit can bite me" T-shirt. Herbstreit is the ESPN college football analyst who ripped NIU's inclusion in the BSC bowl lineup.
While talk like those harsh words from Herbstreit has somewhat subsided, it likely will be rekindled once the underdog Huskies arrive in Miami with their 12-game winning streak.
"My kind of take on how the outside has kind of perceived us, it's gone from really negative right away, to kind of turned positive, that feel-good story," coach Rod Carey said. "I think it's all been great because they all talk about NIU. I think that's a great thing."
Compher clearly believes the Huskies belong in the Orange Bowl and played by the BCS rules to get there.
"There's no doubt," Compher said. "If you look at the success of our program over the past few years, this team is for real. They've had three straight 11-win-plus seasons. We deserve to be here. We did everything the right way and this confirms that."
Recruiting-wise, this figures to elevate NIU into a different category.
"They call back -- the recruits all call back," Carey said. "They're really fired up about it, all the guys we are talking to, and they should be. We're a BCS bowl team this year.
"If you're 18 (and) you're looking at some schools, I think we would be at the top of your list, and we should be. That's been a positive. How will it translate? I don't know. I will let you know on signing day."
Added Compher: "The the coaches are able to get in the homes that they normally would not be able to get into. There's much more interest in what we're doing, both regionally and nationally."
The coaching staff also will be better equipped to sell NIU to recruits once the Kenneth and Ellen Chessick indoor practice center is completed. Compher hopes it will be finished in time for next season.
"It's a 120-yard football playing surface with a practice track around it," Compher said. "It's something that we've needed for a long time. Many programs in the MAC have had it and we haven't. It will really help us when looking at recruiting, when practicing for the postseason and even our early morning workouts in the spring."
The Lynch factor
Everyone knows Jordan Lynch, the junior quarterback from Mount Carmel and second team Associated Press all-American who finished seventh in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
Lynch leads the nation in total offense going into the bowl games with 4,733 yards, including 1,771 rushing. He is tied with Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, the Heisman Trophy winner, in points responsible for with 258.
Lynch took over for another former record-setting quarterback, Chandler Harnish, and had some big shoes to fill.
"The main difference is that Jordan is more athletic than Chandler -- running, breaking tackles, speed," said wide receiver Perez Ashford. "Jordan learned a lot from Chandler and took that into his game."
Lynch is hardly a one-man show, although his numbers might suggest otherwise.
"I didn't do this all by myself -- make it to the Orange Bowl all by myself," Lynch said. "It's a game plan, it's the coaches, it's the teammates around me, the playmakers around me."
Carey sees a player who is a bit uncomfortable with the attention he gets at the expense of teammates.
"That's the kind of guy he is," Carey said of his humble QB. "It has been good for NIU to get us out there, not only our community, but our school.
"We have a lot of really good players on this team. From Martel Moore to Perez Ashford, all of our seniors are playing their best football. That's what makes this team -- you have seniors playing their best. Tyrone Clark, Sean Progar, Alan Baxter, all these guys, and I could go on and on and name them all. If you just look through the roster and you can highlight a senior, that's one of our best players."
Not just another game
The Orange Bowl, naturally, is going to be the biggest game in the history of NIU. The players can try to treat it as just another game, but they know it isn't.
"The main focus is the football game," said cornerback Rashaan Melvin. "Everything else is second. We plan on having a good time, but we're going down there to play a football game against one of the best teams in the country. As NIU, as a whole program, we're dedicated to our work."
Carey will try to mix fun and business.
"(Florida State) coach (Jimbo) Fisher gave me some advice when we were down at the Orange Bowl (news conference)," Carey said. "He said, 'Know where they are at.' I said, 'Oh, great.' We're going to have some structured events, but this is a reward. That is the other part of this. We're going to let them be kids, but they know they are representing themselves and the spotlight is on and the spotlight is bigger than it's been for us. We've been talking about it nonstop.
"We wanted this," Carey said. "That's what our kids have gone after. To think that they would minimize this or use this or not be responsible with this, I think would be shortsighted on my part. They're going to be responsible. I'm going to help them be responsible, but they are going to enjoy it, too."