MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Northern Illinois pulled out all the stops.
Successful onside kick: Check.
A fake punt resulting in a first down and 35 yards: Yep.
A late fourth-down conversion to continue a drive? Got it.
Yet it still wasn’t enough.
NIU was overwhelmed by Florida State in all phases in a 31-10 loss Tuesday in the Orange Bowl.
An offense that had scored 30-plus points in 12 its past 13 games managed 10 against one of the nation’s top defenses.
Florida State might not technically have “SEC speed,” but the Seminoles (12-2) certainly were faster than any team NIU (12-2) had faced this season.
That was the difference.
Although NIU is the unquestioned top program in the Mid-American Conference, a gap still remains between them and college football’s bigger programs from BCS conferences. It may be narrowing, but it persists.
It was seen in the season-opening loss against Iowa at Soldier Field and again in their 30-23 comeback victory against Kansas. NIU’s offense put up its two lowest point totals of the season – until Tuesday – against teams featuring better athletes.
The Huskies’ pass rush that was so dominant in MAC play couldn’t get pressure on EJ Manuel. A young offensive line that exceeded expectations during the regular season was often pushed back by an experienced and talented Seminoles defensive line.
In typical Florida State fashion, the Seminoles shot themselves in the foot on several occasions, particularly with bonehead penalties. Still, Florida State managed to put aside any thoughts of an NIU upset early in the fourth quarter.
There’s no question that NIU’s program is heading in the right direction, on an upward trajectory that has put them in the national discussion as one of the top mid-majors in the country. Recruits becoming familiar with the Northern Illinois name, and their appearance in a BCS bowl will only help.
With NIU’s scheduling philosophy, the Huskies will continue to be tested against those national programs. The first game of the 2013 season – against Iowa at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City – will be yet another chance to get the “Boneyard” victories that NIU has marked in its locker room.
For NIU, that chance can’t come soon enough.
• Ross Jacobson is the sports editor of the Daily Chronicle. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org