Greg Cote: Northern Illinois, Florida State Seminoles leave fans wanting

The steady drumbeat of buildup to this 79th Orange Bowl was whether lil’ old Northern Illinois University “belonged” in a Bowl Championship Series game as big and storied as Tuesday night’s at Dolphins stadium.

Define “belonged,” I might say if I were being charitable.

There is no doubt NIU’s Huskies belonged according to every available poll and survey taken in or around DeKalb, Ill.

There must be considerable doubt now, though, whether Northern Illinois belonged in a BCS bowl if the idea was to field a highly competitive game.

But here’s the thing.

There were long stretches Tuesday night when it didn’t look like the heavily favored Florida State Seminoles belonged on this stage much more than NIU did.

FSU would win 31-10 in a game that was largely an unwatchable combination of the losers being hugely overmatched and the winners seeming marginally inspired and less than dominant. Had the Noles been at their best it might have gotten ugly. Make that uglier. As it was their 534 total yards more than doubled NIU’s output.

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher got the perfunctory ice water bucket bath in the waning seconds, so apparently beating Northern Illinois was worth celebrating, after all. One might have doubted that, considering FSU once was 5-0 and ranked No. 3 and dreaming of playing in the same stadium next week, not Tuesday night.

As appetizers go, this one left us mostly hungry, left us wanting. This was the prelude to next week’s BCS National Championship between Notre Dame and Alabama in the same stadium, but it was a bad football game that neither gave NIU the validation it sought nor appreciably demonstrated that the Noles have returned to elite status via their first BCS bowl appearance since 2006.

Bad game? Country singer Jake Owen performed at halftime and put his spin on the Van Halen song, Jump I wished he adapted the lyrics to reflect the first half. From “Might as well jump!” To “Might as well punt!” The thousands of empty seats in the stadium seemed a fair reflection of the product being shown.

Northern Illinois was the first school from the Mid-American Conference ever invited to a BCS bowl — the five top-tier bowls — and was out to prove that a 12-1 record built against the likes of Toledo and Eastern Michigan would stand up against the best team from the bigger Atlantic Coast Conference.

It didn’t. And if you think it did, blame FSU’s less-than-powerful performance.

Northern Illinois just did not have the caliber of talent to really compete. Even NIU’s head coach, Rod Carey, had implied as much leading up to the game in trying to explain the chip on his players’ shoulders.

“These guys are recruited from the MAC,” he said. “They’re told they’re not good enough to play elsewhere.”

And they’re told accurately, in most cases.

I have my doubts whether Northern Illinois would beat the Miami Hurricanes.

So NIU came into the OB game prepared to try everything to make up the shortfall in talent. The Huskies were overmatched, clearly the inferior team, and knew it. Their game plan, their daring, said so. Northern Illinois faked a punt for the first time all season, and pulled it off. They tried an onside kick for the first time, and got that, too.

The tricks kept it close for a while.

I guess the loss was as respectable as losses can be, all things considered.

Underdog might be the most casually overused word in sports — most every game in every sport has one, after all — but not quite like this.

Not like we saw coming into this game.

You got the feeling the Huskies were playing for more than the good folks back home in DeKalb or the 6,000 or so fans who made a winter vacation of this trip.

They were playing for the little guys everywhere. Not just for the underdogs. For the teams told they don’t even belong on the same field. They were playing for anybody who has ever been laughed at or told, “You aren’t good enough.”

The Huskies spent an entire week being asked in various ways if they “belonged.” They could only have been more obviously cast in their role if the players had all carried slingshots as props.

Carey, the coach, had called NIU “a well-kept secret,” and said, “We’re trying to let people in on the secret.”

The fairy tale ending didn’t happen.

But if you’re asking now, after this game, whether Northern Illinois “belonged” on this stage, I’d say this. College-football TV analyst Kirk Herbstreit had said NIU making a BCS bowl was a “disgrace.” It could have been. It wasn’t quite.

But neither did it validate the MAC or Northern Illinois in a way that either hoped.

“We deserve to be here,” NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch had said.

And he’d said much more, Lynch had.

The kid had tiptoed that line between confident and cocky by saying of FSU, “They haven’t seen anything like our offense.”

Hmm. Lynch, his team’s double-threat star, completed 15 of 41 passes and managed 44 net rushing yards on 23 carries.

He’d also said of FSU, “In the fourth quarter, we plan to have them on their knees.”

Instead, in the fourth quarter, Lynch and his team were the ones struggling to get off of their knees. Struggling to make a game of it, and a name for themselves.

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