Four months ago, Northern Illinois started its season as an underdog, playing on a neutral field in an NFL stadium against a team from one of the sport’s power conferences.
Few people thought the Huskies would cap their season in the same circumstances.
But Northern Illinois is here in Miami at the Orange Bowl, ready to take on Florida State, the Atlantic Coast Conference champion and one of the premier college football programs over the past two decades.
All the motivation NIU needed was provided by ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit just moments after its Orange Bowl bid officially was announced. But senior tight end Jason Schepler said most of the players have had a deeper fuel since the day they stepped on campus as freshmen.
“I think this whole team is made up of guys who someone has told them at some point in their life that they’re not good enough to play here,” Schepler said.
“For me, personally, I went to all the Big Ten schools for their senior one-day camps and every one of them told me I wasn’t good enough,” Schepler said. "One of my favorite games was when we beat Purdue a couple years ago, because that was one of the schools that told me I wasn’t good enough to play there.
“People saying that we’re not good enough to be here is just another day for us and everyone on the team.”
The Huskies’ motivation is unquestioned. But the most important game in program history will come down to the Huskies’ ability to execute against an opponent with more athleticism and speed.
That is something NIU struggled with against the two teams they played from BCS conferences this season. Their only loss of the season came against Iowa, 18-17 in the season opener, and junior quarterback Jordan Lynch had to lead a furious fourth-quarter rally to salvage a 30-23 win against lowly Kansas at home.
“You have to play more people against [Florida State’s] offense because you have to chase them down, tackle them and get them down,” said NIU coach Rod Carey, who will be making his head coaching debut tonight. “Then you have to put someone else who’s fresh so you don’t lose a step, because if you lose a step against FSU, it could be worth 80 yards.”
Despite being a heavy underdog, a couple of stats do favor the Huskies. Florida State has a negative turnover margin and averages two turnovers a game this season. After a lackluster start to the year, NIU’s defense of late has been opportunistic in creating turnovers, and the offense has converted those game-changing plays into points.
NIU doesn’t have to wait any longer. After a month off, the biggest game in program history finally has arrived.
“This is probably the top [moment in my career]. I can’t wait for Jan. 1, to step out on the field in front of everybody, and play Florida State,” Lynch said upon arriving in Florida on Wednesday. “I can only imagine that it’s going to be at the top.”