Despite last year's success, NIU far from satisfied
For Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey, time hasn't lessened the pain. It hurts every time Lonnie Pryor breaks free in the open field, every time Florida State's defense forces Jordan Lynch into a bad decision. The 41-year-old Carey sits in his office watching game tape from last year's Orange Bowl loss, always looking for ways to improve as NIU begins to prepare for 2013.
Last season, Northern Illinois ripped off 12 consecutive wins to bust the BCS. Lynch, in his first go-round as starting quarterback, racked up 4,953 yards of total offense, second nationally to only Johnny Manziel. But NIU's breakout campaign ended with a whimper: It fell to Florida State in the Orange Bowl, 31-10, failing to live up to the hype when the spotlight shined brightest.
"I got off to a s***** start," joked Carey, who was promoted to the top job moments before the Huskies' BCS bid was announced last December. "We're 23-5 [over the last two seasons], and I'm 0-1."
Carey's crack sums up everything college football fans need to know about this NIU program: There's a recent history of success, but also an unshakable sense of urgency. Getting to the big game wasn't enough. Despite being painted as the non-AQ darling -- the team that was lucky to land an invite to Miami -- Northern Illinois enters this spring with something to prove.
"The way we look at it, the last game we played we lost," said Lynch last Friday. "We got a bad taste in our mouth. We can't wait to get back on the field."
Around DeKalb, Ill., there's a not-so-subtle urge to show NIU can win on the biggest stage. But right now, the focus is on all the little things. Carey, who assumed head-coaching duties following Dave Doeren's departure for NC State, has turned his attention to getting the most out of a roster that returns all but a few of last season's standouts.
The Huskies bring back all five starting offensive linemen from a unit that allowed just 17 sacks last year, tied for 25th fewest in the nation. They benefit from the return of first-team All-MAC safety Jimmie Ward, a 5-foot-11, 192-pound dynamo who has made at least 100 tackles in each of the last two campaigns. But hope ultimately starts and ends with Lynch, who, after emerging as the poster boy for mid-major stardom in 2012, will be asked to produce even gaudier numbers come fall.
Lynch set the bar at a staggering level last year. He snapped the single-season rushing record for an FBS quarterback by running for 1,815 yards. He passed for at least one touchdown in each of his final 13 games, including four in a come-from-behind win over Western Michigan on Oct. 27. He consistently made the spectacular seem routine; the average length of his 19 rushing scores was 24.6 yards.
Only, it didn't last in the Orange Bowl. Lynch completed 15-of-41 attempts and tallied just 220 total yards. After the game, he was called out by Seminoles players, several of whom claimed he had disrespected them before kickoff.
"He was jacked up in the Orange Bowl, no doubt, and he'll admit that," said Carey. "He didn't play his best in that game because he was probably too amped up. But for the most part, the dude is pretty consistent. And I think he understands, there's a lot of room for improvement."
Carey said Lynch is focused on fine-tuning his footwork this spring. Offensive coordinator Bob Cole said his star is working to gain a better grasp of the playbook. And Lynch said he's honed in on limiting turnovers, though he threw just six interceptions last year, one every 65.7 attempts.
Perhaps most significantly: Lynch is a year more mature. Now he's talking like a seasoned vet, like a player with a singular mindset, like so many of the sport's great leaders.
"We don't read newspapers and we try not to read press clippings," Lynch responded when asked how he dealt with last year's backlash. "We just try to focus on ourselves."
Of course, Lynch isn't the only player who must step up for the Huskies to succeed. A young stable of receivers will have to emerge, as speedster Tommylee Lewis and junior-to-be Da'Ron Brown will be counted on to replace the production of Martel Moore and Perez Ashford. The attack will need to jell with three new assistants, Kelton Copeland, Tim Polasek and Thad Ward, and Lynch and company will need to embrace Cole's plan to play faster and more physical. "We're just gonna look at a couple things this spring as far as getting the plays called quicker and making sure we understand what we're doing," said Cole. "Hopefully it will improve how fast we play and at the same time not make mistakes."
That last point could be critical. The defense loses seven starters from the 2012 squad, including three of its four leading sack-getters. The offense will be asked to pick up the slack, particularly early.
"I was looking at that the other day," said Carey. "That was one of those where you sit back -- 'cause you see that paper and you lost seven starters -- and you go 'Oh s***.' But then you start looking at all the guys who played in games that are back. When we line up, there won't be a guy who goes out with that first team that hasn't played a lot of football last year."
Carey is practical. He knows how difficult it is to reach the heights NIU did in 2012. But he also knows the talent he brings back and the opportunity he has at hand.
Like most coaches, Carey doesn't deal in expectations. They're for the media, he said. A program is built from the inside out. Yet when prodded about NIU's potential, even he can't help but chime in.
"Some people think [we have] really high expectations," Carey said. "And I say, well what kind of expectations do you want? Do you want people to expect you to be 6-6 and then when you get there praise you for being mediocre? I don't want those expectations. I want the expectations to win every game we play."
Last Friday, as Carey prepared to speak at a football clinic in Wisconsin, a few things weighed heavily on his mind. There was the weather, windy and frigid, that had pushed back the start of spring practice by a week (from March 20 to March 27). There was his to-do list, seemingly endless, that threatened to eat up all his time. Then there was his goal, quite literally, to put his Huskies' program on the map.
"I've been recruiting the state of Wisconsin for over 10 years," said Carey, "and there are coaches still in Wisconsin that don't know we're 140 miles south of Madison. And there are still a ton of coaches that don't know we're 55 miles west of Chicago."
Last year's run to the Orange Bowl started to change that. But to get to where the program wants to be -- a name-brand non-AQ contender on the same plane as Boise State -- it needs keep winning, again and again. It needs to defend its back-to-back MAC championships and build off its mark of 23-5 since the start of 2011.
And if he's ever lacking for motivation, Carey can always turn to the tape. There's a difference between moving on and forgetting. Nearly four months after the Orange Bowl, the Huskies are still bent on proving they belong.
"What this experience did for us is it left a really hungry team," said Carey. "No doubt, Florida State had a really great team, and I take nothing away from them. But we were really pissed that we lost that game. We had opportunities, and we didn't take advantage of our opportunities."
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