MOBILE, Ala. – In a coach’s world, next season began one second after the final tick of Northern Illinois’ win in the GoDaddy.com Bowl on Sunday.
Clearly, that was on Dave Doeren’s mind as he walked with his team to its locker room at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. Jordan Lynch couldn’t even sit at his locker – let alone find a shower – before his coach wanted to tell him something.
“This is your team now,” Doeren told Lynch.
“I know,” the quarterback answered.
For two years, those five words ripped NIU fans into an unjustified panic. This is Lynch’s team now. But Sunday night – and, really, for much of 2011 – Lynch showed there is no reason to fear.
No, the sophomore isn’t going to walk onto Huskie Stadium’s field next season and instantly replace all-everything quarterback Chandler Harnish. But here’s a bold prediction: Don’t be surprised if Lynch’s play next season is good enough to make one of the three all-Mid-American Conference teams.
He already is showing flashes of what could be. It was Lynch who led NIU on a seven-play, 78-yard go-ahead touchdown drive when Harnish briefly was sidelined with a tweaked ankle in the second quarter. And, for the momentum it created, I think no play was more important than Lynch’s 41-yard sideline fade to Martel Moore that ignited the drive.
“So proud,” Harnish said, a huge smile forming. “I love to see him complete passes because so many people say that he can’t throw. But we know he can. I love to see him succeed.
“Aside from our defense, I think he was one of our most valuable players of the game.”
Ah yes, the defense. With a senior-laden offense, it didn’t take long to realize next season will be about the Huskies defense. A few months ago, that was reason to cringe. Not now.
NIU’s defense was the offense’s inverse, with just two senior starters and a lot of room to grow. It did, becoming the reason NIU won its second straight MAC West title, its first MAC championship since 1983, and the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
Because of the defense, I was surprised NIU didn’t crack the top 25 when the final polls were released Tuesday. Of course, we know voters don’t watch many of the games, making results outside the nation’s top 15 teams flimsy – if they have any meaning at all. And the losses to Kansas and Central Michigan dampen the shine beaming from NIU’s accomplishments, notably the nation’s longest win streak and a title in a conference that was 4-1 this bowl season.
But No. 26 NIU was one of 16 teams in the country to win 11 games. None of the other 15 won their final nine games.
If this was a conversation about the nation’s top 20, NIU wouldn’t belong. But you can’t tell me BYU and Cincinnati – two teams that beat nobody, by the way – are better than NIU. If the Huskies played Central Michigan today – relevant because national polls are to reflect who are the best teams in current time – they would win by five touchdowns, no matter where the game was.
That tangent aside, the defense made a top 25 debate possible. Most of the stars will be back next season. With linebackers Devon Butler and Tyrone Clark also expected to return, NIU fans could see a defense that, from start to finish, dominates the conference much like the program’s 2010 version.
Coupled with a quarterback who seems ready to be a quality MAC starter, the future should be bright.
• Ryan Wood is a sports reporter for the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.