After weeks of hearing how its overmatched and shouldnt be playing in a BCS bowl game, Northern Illinois gets the chance to shock its critics.
The Huskies, champions of the Mid-American Conference, will face Atlantic Coast Conference champion Florida State in the Orange Bowl on New Years Day night.
Northern Illinois has a new head coach in Rod Carey, who was promoted from offensive coordinator after former coach Dave Doeren took the Nc State job.
The Huskies are better than most casual observers think, though they havent faced a team nearly as talented as Florida State.
Quarterback Jordan Lynch: This dual threat ranks first in the country in total offense (4,733 yards) and has played a part in 43 touchdowns this season. The redshirt junior has thrown for 2,962 yards and leads the Huskies with 1,771 rushing yards. (The teams next leading rusher is Leighton Settle with 453 yards.) Lynch needs 38 passing yards to become the first player in FBS history to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,500 in a season.
Receiver Martel Moore: The 6-2 senior is Lynchs favorite target and has playmaker ability. He had 71 catches for 1,054 yards (14.8 average). Moore has at least one touchdown reception in each of the past four games and in 10 of 13 games this season.
Safety Jimmie Ward: The 5-11 junior led the Huskies in tackles (90 overall, 54 solo) and interceptions (3).
DEs Alan Baxter and Sean Progar: The two play significant roles in a pass rush that has fueled the Huskies defense. Senior Baxter had 9.5 sacks, one better than fifth-year senior Progar.
Lynch and the running game clearly rank as NIUs biggest strengths.
Northern Illinois averaged 5.6 yards per carry (fifth in the country) and scored 44 rushing touchdowns (fourth). The Huskies averaged 250.2 rushing yards (ninth) and 40.8 points (eighth).
Defensively, the Huskies have given up only 17.5 points per game. Thats very impressive, though MAC competition isnt quite that of the major conferences.
The NIU pass rush accounted for 40 sacks with a loss of 261 yards.
A team that went 12-1 didnt display a lot of weaknesses in the MAC, but that could be a different story against Florida State.
The Seminoles undoubtedly will be the most athletic and most physical team NIU will face this season. The Huskies lost their opener to a subpar Iowa team and struggled in beating Kansas.
An offensive line that lost starting left tackle Tyler Loos (broken leg) in the Nov. 14 victory against Toledo will need to handle a powerful Florida State front. Right tackle Ryan Brown replaced Loos, with Matt Krempel taking the right tackle spot.
Krempel will be up against FSUs highly touted left end Bjoern Werner, who has 18 tackles for loss and is tied for second in the country with 13 sacks.
Three keys to a Northern Illinois win
Establish some sort of passing game: No surprise, the Huskies want to run the football. But to do so, Lynch must complete some passes.
Florida State, which yields just 93 rushing yards per game (fifth in the nation), likely will begin by stacking the box in an attempt to shut down Lynch and the NIU running game.
If Lynch & Co. run the ball, that will keep the Seminoles offense off the field, help use up the clock and perhaps wear down the Seminoles defenders, especially Werner.
Put pressure on quarterback EJ Manuel: Northern Illinois defense depends on creating pressure with both a strong pass rush and timely blitzing.
Manuel has shown inconsistency this season, and the Huskies likely think they can rattle the senior.
Defensive ends Alan Baxter, Sean Progar, Joe Windsor and defensive tackle Ken Bishop spearhead a Huskies pass rush that produced 40 sacks.
If it can get to Manuel, NIU also might be able to generate fumbles or interceptions. Multiple Seminoles turnovers certainly would enhance the Huskies chances.
Tackle in space: Whether its one-on-one or the gang tackling NIU loves, the Huskies need to prevent big plays from the tall, athletic and speedy Florida State skill players.
The Huskies defense can expect to see some high, jump balls thrown to tall receivers, and some quick slants to try and take advantage of speed.
That especially will be the case if Florida State sees North Illinois blitzing a lot, creating some one-on-one matchups downfield.