NIU lost bowl, but Huskies came out winners
MIAMI -- It all sounded so right.
Go down to Florida, play some golf, have a few beverages and celebrate NIU in the Orange Bowl.
The game is ancillary, is how we had it figured. The thrill is in being selected. The reality is that it might not be much of a contest, and that the best part of the adventure would be the month leading up to the game.
So we don't care, is what we thought, about what actually happens in Miami.
It sounds so right and is so easy to say -- until you get within sight of the stadium.
And then, just that suddenly, it's not about the invitation.
You realize you care very much about the game. Not about keeping it close, but about winning the game.
And then they flip the coin and it's no joke anymore. You stay within shouting distance for a half, and in the third quarter you have the football with a chance to tie the score.
You start thinking you might have a shot to win the Orange Bowl -- and you understand it's not just a marketing tool for NIU anymore.
This happened to nearly everyone I saw in Florida who traveled south to support NIU.
So it was with much difficulty that 35,000 Huskies fans trudged out of Sun Life Stadium Wednesday morning -- at least I think it was Wednesday morning here by the time it finally ended.
It was rather sad, actually. This was a game NIU could have won had their offense done anything at all, had their offense been anything resembling their regular-season offense.
The defense did its part against Florida State, but NIU QB Jordan Lynch had a rough night, and when he's not right, there's nothing much right about the NIU offense.
Yes, FSU has a terrific defense, but there were plays to be made and NIU simply missed them.
Lynch was impatient in the run game and forced throws when he had time. On this night, and unlike the entire season, Lynch didn't look like one of the top offensive players in college football.
Being chased to the sideline late in the third quarter, his interception deep in FSU territory with NIU down a touchdown -- not long after recovering an onside kick -- was the pivotal moment in the game.
It was still a two-score game with 11 minutes left and again on FSU's side of the 50 when a turnover turned it into a 21-point rout.
So it was a bit of a tease, seeing NIU march down the field in the third quarter with a chance to tie it, but even Kirk Herbstreit would have to admit that the Huskies made a game of it.
The worst part after the game was seeing the faces of the NIU students who had made the long trek to Southern Florida. They knew they faced a miserably long bus ride home, a trip made longer by an ugly fourth quarter.
The announced attendance was 72,073 and it was easily half NIU fans. What made it tougher is that many who made the trip probably spent money they could have used for more important things.
But moms and dads, aunts and grandmothers, teachers and friends told these kids that this is what they should do, that this opportunity will never come again, and that one day they will want to say they went to this game.
After a frustrating defeat, and enduring taunts from the FSU faithful, there were no smiles as NIU students loaded onto their buses.
But a new dawn brought a bright, warming sun, and the reminder that this was a gift of the most unexpected kind. It was the chance of a lifetime, and with a couple hours' sleep and three cups of coffee Wednesday morning, I remembered that the journey to the Orange Bowl was a huge victory.
NIU in the Orange Bowl. Seriously? I still can't say it without laughing.
Once the students return to campus, and ponder the miracle that was this BCS bowl berth, they will smile again.
They will remember the tremendous 2012 season, the brilliance of Lynch, the 12-game winning streak, and the 50 things that had to go right the last three weeks of the season for this to be possible.
No, the game didn't turn out the way we wanted, but we got to see NIU in the Orange Bowl, and for 50 minutes they thrilled us with the hope that they might even win the game.
It didn't happen, but NIU showed up.
Kirk Herbstreit? He can eat rocks.
•Hear Barry Rozner on WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.