If Northern Illinois didn't belong in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, 2013, how did the Huskies get there? They played by the rules and won.
"We just went out with a huge target on our backs and won every game," said NIU head coach Dave Doeren. "That's a great accomplishment."
Well, the Huskies almost won every game. They finished 12-1 in the regular season, including a thrilling 44-37 double-overtime victory against Kent State in the MAC Championship Game.
Only Iowa's rally from a 17-9 deficit in the fourth quarter in the season-opener kept the Huskies from being undefeated heading to Miami.
The first overtime game in MAC championship history was "a thrilling finish for a league that doesn't always get much attention," the Associated Press reported. It was tied four times before Jordan Lynch's 2-yard touchdown run gave the Huskies a 44-37 lead in the second overtime. Demetrius Stone intercepted Kent State's Spencer Keith in the end zone to end the game.
And for the first time in school history, the Huskies were headed to a major bowl. The Huskies also clinched the MAC's first appearance in a major bowl.
It's the sports moment judged the greatest in NIU history.
However, NIU was not warmly received by the BCS.
'The feel-good story of the year in college football wasn't 60 seconds old when ESPN dropped its pants and rained all over NIU's parade," wrote the Daily Herald's Barry Rozner.
CBSSports.com reported that an Orange Bowl staffer told an NIU representative the Huskies were undeserving and unwanted. ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit added salt, saying NIU in the BCS "is really a sad state for college football."
But NIU was no fluke. BCS rules stipulated that a school from a non-BCS automatic qualifying conference, such as the MAC, would earn a bid if:
- Ranked in the top 16.
- Ranked ahead of a champion from an automatic qualifying conference.
NIU was No. 15 in the final BCS standings, ahead of automatic qualifying conference champions Wisconsin (Big Ten) and Louisville (Big East).
"This will go down as a seminal day in the history of our university and of our football program," said NIU Associate Vice President and Director of Athletics Jeff Compher. "It's a day that all of our alumni, current students and fans will remember forever with tremendous pride."
NIU kept the Orange Bowl close until the fourth quarter, when Florida State pulled away with two touchdowns for a 31-10 victory.
The big winner, ironically, turned out to be ESPN. The game made Herbstreit's employer the night's most-watched network, broadcast or cable.
• Northern Illinois University Athletics Hall of Fame
On the cover and above: Anthony Wells of Northern Illinois celebrates with fans after the Huskies beat Kent State 44-37 in double overtime in the MAC Championship Game on Nov. 30, 2012, at Ford Field in Detroit. The victory sent NIU to the Orange Bowl. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images)
YouTube video courtesy NIU Athletics.
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• Monday: New Mexico State and New Orleans
• Tuesday: Nicholls and UNC Asheville
• Wednesday: UNC Greensboro and UNC Wilmington
• Thursday: North Dakota and Northeastern
• Friday: Northern Illinois and Northern Kentucky