Northern Illinois’ football team knew it had arrived for the Orange Bowl when its plane landed Wednesday morning. But players knew they had arrived when they got off the plane.
Men in orange jackets. Media. Bags of bowl swag. And the buses.
“Our picture on the sides of the buses,” senior defensive lineman Nabal Jefferson said. “We were, ‘Ooh, look at that! Did you see that?’ Just shocked. You’re on the side of the bus. That was awesome.”
Said Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey: “They loved coming off and seeing their pictures on the bus. They came off and were snapping pictures of it, sending it, tweeting it, whatever they do now. Then, we got into the field and they snapped right back in and got to work. That’s because of our seniors.”
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That brings up that the 11-1 Huskies shouldn’t be considered bowl bumpkins. This is Northern Illinois’ fifth consecutive bowl game, if the first near an ocean (17 players, including Lynch, haven’t set foot in the Atlantic or the Pacific).
They played the International Bowl (27-3 loss to South Florida) in Toronto, a larger metropolitan area than Miami-Fort Lauderdale. They speak highly of Boise, Idaho, where they throttled Fresno State in the Humanitarian Bowl two years ago.
“We’ve been to a lot the last few years. These kids are used to this,” Carey said. “This one’s a little different.”
In a major way.
“A BCS bowl is the best bowl you can get besides the national championship. It’s different,” said Northern Illinois redshirt junior quarterback Jordan Lynch, sixth in Heisman Trophy voting. “Just the way we got greeted coming off the plane, usually that doesn’t happen at bowl games like that. The [police] escort, they shut down the whole highway. That was pretty cool.”
“Cold” described DeKalb, Ill., on Wednesday morning — temperature in the 20s as the Huskies contingent boarded their planes at Chicago Rockford International Airport. They practiced at Barry University in 80-degree heat enhanced by typical South Florida humidity. A light rain fell for a few minutes early in practice, then gave way to the steamy sun.
“You definitely feel the thickness and the humidity,” Jefferson said. “That was a little of an adjustment. I think we got better as practice went on.”
Said Carey: “I pulled them off halfway through [practice] and said, ‘You have a chance to have a really special practice,’ and we did.”
Lynch said, perhaps half-jokingly, he thought Northern Illinois’ players from Florida had their best practice of the year. Of the Huskies’ 11 Floridians, six come from Miami-Dade, Broward or Palm Beach counties (redshirt sophomore linebacker Jamaal Bass from Miramar High; sophomore wide receiver Tommylee Lewis from Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer; senior wide receiver Demetrius Stone from Miami American; fifth-year senior linebacker Victor Jacques from Miami Columbus High; redshirt freshman wide receiver Angelo Sebastiano from Coconut Creek North Broward Prep; junior defensive tackle Ken Bishop from Sunrise Piper).
“We always practice hard, but you don’t get to come home too often, especially being from here,” Stone said. “Up there, most people that I live near, their families’ are able to watch them play, come watch practice, come around with ease. We finally get our opportunity where our family can watch us practice, a lot of family and friends can come to the game at the same time.”