Northern Illinois earns fourth straight MAC title berth with win over Toledo
TOLEDO, Ohio -- On my way to Toledo’s Glass Bowl to watch No. 16 Northern Illinois take on the Rockets, I got in the turn lane a road earlier than I was supposed to. It happens. I tried to get back into traffic and didn’t see the car coming in the lane I was trying to merge into. A few phone calls and a police report later, I was now the embarrassed owner of a very expensive piece of old printer paper with a court date in tow.
And I still had a better start to the game than Northern Illinois kicker Matthew Sims. The senior missed three field goals, and the Huskies were unable to capitalize on three Rockets’ turnovers in the first half to take control of the game.
“He’s a kicker, let him be,” Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey said at halftime in a short ESPN interview. “He’ll figure it out.”
For other teams on the road, that might have been too much to handle. But other teams (and my car, for that matter) don’t have Jordan Lynch, who hasn’t lost a MAC game as a starter. Without its top two receivers, Da'Ron Brown and Tommylee Lewis, Northern Illinois won 35-17 behind 28 second half points, giving the Huskies their fourth straight win in the series and, more importantly, locking up a MAC championship berth for the fourth straight year. NIU has spent so much time in Detroit recently, safety Jimmie Ward said it felt like his "second home."
Lynch was 17-of-22 for 202 yards and he rushed for 161 yards with three touchdowns. He consistently picked up tough third downs and kept drives alive, showing the type of poise and athleticism he's been accustomed to over the past two seasons.
"If he's not in the Heisman conversation," Carey said, "I don't know who should be in the country."
Early on the game didn’t have the explosive feel of 2011’s 63-60 thriller, but the fireworks apparently were just being saved for the latter stages of the game. On the first possession of the second half, Lynch completed a 32-yard pass to Juwan Brescacin, followed by a 12-yard touchdown run on the next play to put the Huskies up 14-10.
On the ensuing possession, Toledo’s Terrance Owens (17-of-29, 235 yards, 2 TD) connected with Bernard Reedy (4 catches, 63 yards, 1 TD) for 36 yards to retake the lead. To no one’s surprise, Lynch answered on the next drive, scrambling 31 yards for another rushing score.
Eventually the Huskies used a 15-play, 99-yard drive capped off by a one-yard Lynch touchdown, his 17th of the year, to bury the Rockets. Running back James Spencer (32 yards, 2 TD) provided the exclamation point with a one-yard score with 5:39 to play.
"We practice that every day in practice," Lynch said. "99-yard drives. That's a momentum killer. It's a dagger to the other defense. We have certain plays down there that we rep. We never flinched when we got back there. We knew we were going to push it right out."
The win moved Northern Illinois to 11-0 and kept the Huskies’ BCS hopes alive. NIU is still a spot behind Fresno State in the standings, but if the Bulldogs slip up or the Huskies can find a way to jump them in the computers, Northern Illinois and Lynch would bust the BCS for the second straight year.
Even if the Huskies can’t vault Fresno State, there are plenty of accomplishments to go around in this class. Lynch and fellow seniors like Ward – who had his 10th career interception against the Rockets – have won 45 games, the most in school history, never lost a home game, and they’re currently riding a 24-game conference winning streak, including two MAC championship games. Not to mention last year's Orange Bowl appearance.
"A lot of people out there," Lynch said, "a lot of those experts don't believe in Northern Illinois. We got our shot on ESPN2 for three straight weeks. We got our shot to show the world and show them we belong." Barring an accident against Western Michigan (1-10, 1-6), the Huskies will likely enter the MAC title game at 12-0, and Lynch might just be hitching a ride to New York as a Heisman finalist. That is, if he gets his shot.