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Mid-major Report: Northern Illinois begins to prove last season was no fluke

Da'Ron Brown NIU's Da'Ron Brown had seven catches for 92 yards and a TD against Iowa on Saturday. (Stephen Mally/Icon SMI)

Northern Illinois lost to Iowa on a late touchdown in 2012, but this time around, the Huskies' defense made the difference. On Saturday, NIU avenged last season's loss with a 30-27 win in Iowa City. Quarterback Jordan Lynch made his first career start against Iowa last year. This year, he entered the game fresh off a season in which he finished seventh in Heisman Trophy voting. The spotlight was certainly different.

Lynch played the way Northern Illinois and MAC fans are accustomed to seeing him play, but Kirk Ferentz’s team didn’t roll over after getting hit early. The Hawkeyes, who lost six straight games to close out 2012, had solid offensive drives and got some stops on defense, especially in the first half.

But when Iowa started to play the field position game and got conservative, NIU took advantage. Lynch drove down the field, and Iowa seemed to go into its shell, resulting in quarterback Jake Rudock's costly interception to Jimmie Ward with less than two minutes to play.

“It’s not like we played a perfect game,” Rod Carey, who won his first game as the Huskies' headman, said during the MAC teleconference on Monday. “We certainly didn’t, and our seniors would be the first to tell you. We all have a lot to improve on from a coaching staff to our seniors. But the leadership and the confidence of how you build a team and what’s been going on here for a long time certainly paid dividends in that game.”

Both teams needed this win for their own reasons. Iowa wanted to establish some kind of positive momentum coming into a year where expectations are rock bottom. Northern Illinois wanted revenge and to follow up a surprise Orange Bowl appearance last year with a hot start. This win was the first chance for the Huskies to prove they're a legitimate threat to bust the BCS again.

Lynch finished the game with 331 yards of total offense and three touchdowns, and he showed that even though he won’t sneak up on teams like he did last year, he’ll still be difficult to defend. As the Huskies get deeper into their schedule, they’ll need more pieces around Lynch to help the cause. A second-week bye isn’t typically ideal, but with running back Akeem Daniels out and wide receiver Tommylee Lewis nursing an ankle injury, getting healthy is a big priority.

Northern Illinois has Idaho and Eastern Illinois next, both winnable games, before it takes on Purdue and Kent State in back-to-back weeks. If the Huskies can make it through that stretch unscathed, the schedule sets up nicely for the team to enter November as one of the nation’s most dangerous non-AQ teams.

Three up

Bowling Green's defense: We knew the Falcons had a pretty good defense coming into the season, as Bowling Green finished 38th in defensive F/+ rankings a year ago. But Week 1 foe Tulsa was supposed to have a pretty potent running game: The Golden Hurricane had three 800-plus yard rushers in 2012, and the top two (Trey Watts and Ja’Terian Douglas) both returned. The defense prevailed. BGSU held Tulsa to a mere 51 rushing yards in a 34-7 win.

Kent State was the only other MAC East team that won over the weekend, but the Golden Flashes looked beatable against Liberty with all-world talent Dri Archer mostly on the sidelines. Bowling Green’s win was not only a solid nonconference victory, but a statement that it’s time to take notice of the Falcons. Saturday’s upcoming visit to Kent will tell us a lot more.

Fresno State QB Derek Carr: Shout out to Carr, who, yes, is the brother of former Texans quarterback David Carr. Fans who watched the game against Rutgers last Thursday night (and we don’t blame those who were pacing themselves for the rest of the weekend) heard that a whole bunch. Carr threw 73 passes and had five touchdowns against the Scarlet Knights, and he was able to bring his son home from intensive care after 23 days in the hospital earlier in the week. From the New York Times:

“Football is important, but it’s not the most important thing anymore,” he said, with his team’s opener against visiting Rutgers on Thursday nearing. “I just want to be someone who loves his family more than he loves to drink. I think it’s more important to pray for my son than go out with my friends drinking at a bar until midnight while he waits for me to come home."

Carr passed for more than 4,100 yards last season, and Fresno State may be the frontrunner in the MWC, with both Utah State and Boise State losing. Still, the Bulldogs have to tighten up their defense by the time conference play rolls around.

Western Kentucky coach Bobby Petrino: Football isn’t the same when Petrino isn’t around. Western Kentucky's headman is polarizing, to be sure, but no one is indifferent to the former Arkansas (and Atlanta Falcons and Louisville) head coach. It’s all but assumed Petrino will jump for another opening if he's successful with the Hilltoppers this fall, but that isn’t entirely fair to WKU, at least for now.

Western Kentucky successfully navigated the transition from FCS to FBS in 2009 and played in the Little Caesar’s Bowl in 2012. Now, the team has a chance to win the Sun Belt and knock off a few other teams along the way, as Kentucky learned in a 35-26 result on Saturday. Petrino needed a win to show he’s still got it, and even though Kentucky is still in the early stages of rebuilding under Mark Stoops, a win over an SEC opponent is a great start for Big Red.

BONUS: A one-up to the FCS: Sure, they’re not technically eligible to even receive votes in the Coaches Poll, but they deserve a vote in our hearts after their impressive showing in Week 1. The gap between elite FCS teams and FBS teams isn’t as significant as it used to be, and there are plenty of talented players in the FCS, as we all saw.

It’s got to be tough to be a fan of teams like Oregon State, Kansas State, USF, Connecticut or San Diego State right now. But general football fans can’t ignore how much fun it is to see the underdog punch a bigger program in the mouth.

Three down

Tulsa: On Saturday, this didn’t look like the team USA Today’s Paul Myerberg ranked 26th in his annual preseason countdown. It could be that Bowling Green is just that good, or it could be that Tulsa laid an egg on the road against a team it was supposed to beat. The Golden Hurricane won 11 games in 2012, and this is their final season in Conference USA before they move to the American in 2014.

Coach Bill Blankenship has plenty of issues to address, starting with the running game, which averaged just 2.1 yards per carry. Tulsa will work on that against Colorado State before traveling to Oklahoma on Sept. 14.

Ohio: The advanced numbers were on Ohio’s side entering its matchup with Louisville, but a couple of suspensions and an absolute buzzsaw of an offensive performance from the Cardinals buried the Bobcats out of the gates. This was as bad a performance as Ohio could have possibly had, and it's likely not indicative of what we’ll see from the team in league play. The Bobcats were simply overwhelmed by a superior opponent:

Still, Sunday's effort was not a good look for Solich’s team, which upset Penn State to open the season a year ago.

Boise State: Maybe Washington really is that improved in 2013. If so, the Pac-12 race just got a whole lot tougher. Regardless, a lot of eyes were on Boise State after it beat Washington in the Las Vegas Bowl in '12 and won 10-plus games for what felt like the 20th straight season, and the Broncos flopped: The Huskies rolled them 38-6. Boise looked thoroughly outmatched.

Quarterback Joe Southwick was inaccurate even when he did have time to throw the ball, and the running game was held in check. This was the worst loss Chris Petersen has suffered as Boise's head coach, and it actually seemed worse than the lopsided final score.
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