DEKALB, Ill. -- You can't blame them for wanting to look ahead. Once Northern Illinois had taken control of a back-and-forth game against Ball State in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, fans at Huskie Stadium started chanting, 'BCS-BCS.' NIU still has a few more regular-season games to play, but its supporters in attendance had the right idea. By beating Ball State 48-27 on Wednesday night, No. 20 Northern Illinois cleared the biggest obstacle standing in its path to a second consecutive appearance in a BCS bowl.
"We want to go back to a BCS bowl and we want to win," quarterback Jordan Lynch said afterward.
Northern Illinois' BCS future would look a lot less clear had Lynch not decided to turn Wednesday night's game into a personal Heisman showcase. The senior was brilliant for four quarters, going 26-of-32 for 345 yards (the most Lynch had thrown for since a win over Toledo in November last year) and two touchdowns while rushing for an additional 123 yards and two scores. But the statistics don't tell the whole story. Lynch reminded everyone who wasn't paying attention that he remains one of the most electric players in college football.
Take, for example, one third-down play in the third quarter. Two Ball State defenders appeared to have corralled Lynch behind the line of scrimmage, but the senior miraculously spun away and picked up a first down. Lynch's Houdini-like escape kept a drive alive that produced a one-yard touchdown run from Cameron Stingily to put the Huskies up 27-24. "I think they were trying to strip the ball on that one," Lynch said. As if that wasn't enough, Lynch one-upped himself in the fourth quarter. On third-and-11 from NIU's 38-yard line, Lynch looked left, withstood a would-be tackle, spun away from a defender, scrambled to his right and hit receiver Matt Williams for a 25-yard gain. Again, Northern Illinois would capitalize with a touchdown.
In the postgame press conference, Huskies coach Rod Carey argued Lynch's Heisman case. "If Jordan isn't in the conversation for the Heisman, I don't know what people are watching," he said. "They were obviously asleep."
Carey may be right about Lynch's Heisman chances -- even after tonight's sterling performance. Still, it's hard to believe that anyone could have dozed off during a game that featured 75 points, 57 first downs and more than 1,000 yards of total offense. This was MACtion at its finest: high-scoring, fast-paced and unpredictable. For three quarters, NIU and Ball State went back and forth, trading field goals and touchdowns. Northern Illinois and Ball State both put up points in a hurry; the question was which team would be able to get stops down the stretch?
The answer came in the fourth quarter. The Huskies forced Ball State's explosive offense to punt twice and stuffed running back Jahwan Edwards -- who finished with 156 yards on 29 carries -- on a pivotal fourth-and-one with less than four minutes remaining. "They still ran it on us a bit but we made some key stops," Carey said of his team's defensive performance in the second half. The Huskies, meanwhile, scored three touchdowns in the final six minutes, including a 36-yard play-action toss from Lynch to Da'Ron Brown and a 49-yard pick-six from defensive end Joe Windsor.
After Windsor's interception put NIU up 48-27, the BCS chants went from audible to deafening. Northern Illinois did move one step closer to the BCS, but the Huskies still need a few things to break their way before they can think about something more enticing than the Little Caesars or GoDaddy.com bowls. First, NIU needs to win its two remaining games against Toledo and Western Michigan. The Huskies should have little trouble with the 1-9 (1-5 MAC) Broncos, but next week's trip to traditional rival Toledo is no gimme.
More importantly, Northern Illinois needs to impress the poll voters who comprise two-thirds of the BCS formula. The Huskies are ranked No. 15 in the latest BCS standings with an average score of 0.3505, nearly a tenth of a point behind 14th-ranked Fresno State (0.4317). The Huskies need to finish in the top 12 or in the top 16 and ahead of an AQ-conference champion to earn an automatic BCS berth. If Northern Illinois keeps winning, there's a good chance it will finish in the top 12; according to CBS' Jerry Palm, no undefeated team in the BCS era has finished lower than No. 12. The Huskies should also finish ahead of likely American Athletic Conference champ UCF.
Of course, none of that will matter if Northern Illinois can't pass Fresno State. The Huskies and Bulldogs are tied in the computer rankings, but Fresno has a big advantage in both the Harris (No. 13 to No. 18) and Coaches' (No. 14 to No. 21) polls. Even if NIU wins its remaining games in convincing fashion, the voters aren't likely to drop Fresno State on their ballots unless the Bulldogs lose.
The Huskies don't control their own destiny, in other words. The only thing Carey's team can do now is keep winning and hope Fresno falls. With Lynch playing this well, the Huskies should be able to hold up their end of the bargain.
The rest is out of their control.