Northern Illinois look to show midwestern grit against Florida State in Orange Bowl

Ah, the legendary tradition-heavy names that have built the Orange Bowl status … Joe Namath … Texas … Nebraska …. Julius Ceasar Watts … Bernie Kosar, Michael Irvin, Melvin Bratton and all those men of The U.

So, what’s this Northern Illinois, and who’s this Jordan Lynch seeking to join this legacy Tuesday against storied Florida State?

“It’s a fine institution, big school, but it’s a well-kept secret. We’re trying to let people in on the secret,” Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey said. “Our kids are blue-collar, chip-on-their-shoulder, play-hard guys.”

(“Chip on our shoulder” isn’t the school or team motto — that’s “The Hard Way” for the team — but the Huskies say it often enough for unofficial motto status.)

Take Lynch, who went to Northern Illinois out of Chicago Mount Carmel High because he would get the chance to play quarterback. He finished seventh in the Heisman Trophy voting and got Second Team All-America honors as an all-purpose back. He set an NCAA record for quarterbacks with 1,771 rushing yards and 136.2 rushing yards per game, accounting for more than half of Northern’s team rushing yards. He also completed 62.9 percent of his 353 passes for 2,962 yards and 24 touchdowns.

Carey was speaking of football players, but athletic director Jeff Compher also said, “Our history has been a lot of our students are first generation college students. So many students come in having gone to community college or junior college first and come in to finish up at Northern Illinois. We’re kind of a professional school in some ways.”

But, Compher noted, doing a considerable amount of construction. Perhaps they will need it — he said the school’s admissions department told him applications increased by 25 percent since Northern Illinois accepted the Orange Bowl invitation.

On the basics, it’s a school of 21,900 students in DeKalb, Ill., a city of 45,000 that is 65 miles west of downtown Chicago. About 13 buses are bringing 2,800 students. They’ve distributed 8,000 tickets from their allotment and turned 7,000 back in to the Orange Bowl for use with veterans organizations and Big Brothers/Big Sisters of South Florida.

(Compher said the Mid-American Conference presidents got together and agreed to buy Northern’s 17,500 ticket allotment to make sure the school doesn’t wind up going in the hole from the bowl.)

On the field, they’re the champions of the MAC, ranked 16th in The Associated Press (media) and USA Today/Coaches polls. They’re one of six teams — Oregon, Alabama, Stanford, LSU and Boise State are the others — with streaks of three consecutive 10-win seasons working. Oregon is the only other team with three consecutive 11-win seasons.

OK, they did it in the MAC, and even Carey admits they didn’t steamroll through their schedule despite their 11-game winning streak. Then again, they did just beat whoever showed up after losing 18-17 to Iowa on a touchdown with 2:15 left.

And nobody else has had a National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete Award winner in 2011 and 2012. Nose guard Nabal Jefferson, a two-year starter, majors in accounting and plans to get his masters degree in accounting.

“Family. We’re a big family school,” senior defensive lineman Sean Progar said. “A lot of our teammates, we treat each other like family. I think that helps on the field. We trust each other. And hard-nosed. A lot of us are guys who are a little bit smaller, a little bit slower that didn’t get that opportunity that these guys at Florida State did or any other BCS school did. So we’ve got a chip on our shoulder. We’re going to play hard-nosed, disciplined and fundamental. We take pride in doing it the right way.”

If you’ve heard the “family” metaphor in sports enough to think you should need credentials to use it, here are Northern’s:

Compher says 180,000 of Northern’s 225,000 living alumni live within an hour of the school. Wide receiver Demetrius Stone said that welcoming family atmosphere around the team drew him there. At many Northern schools with a bloc of Florida players, you’ll find them moving in a Sunshine State clique. Stone, a Hialeah American High graduate, said the Florida players don’t really hang out with each other but with whomever else on the team with whom they get along.

“We’re a family, and we’re tough,” Jefferson said. “We can get through anything together, and we always have each other’s back. Whether it’s the football team going to a basketball game or the president talking to a teacher, we always have each other’s backs.”

The Orange Bowl is functioning as a family reunion. Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner is coming in for the game. So is veteran NFL offensive lineman Ryan Diem. Past Northern Illinois football coaches come around practice and will be at Sun Life Stadium on Tuesday.

As for the questions about whether or not Northern belongs, Carey shrugged and said: “You guys have to ask them, too. I mean, nobody’s heard of us before three weeks ago, right?”

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