I still remember leaving a dark, empty Solider Field on Sept. 1.
One of the last ones out of the press box, I had just witnessed Northern Illinois’ 18-17 loss to Iowa, a game the Huskies very well could have won.
Little did I know that exactly four months later on Jan. 1, I would be covering the Huskies at another NFL facility, Sun Life Stadium in south Florida for the Orange Bowl. It was the first BCS bowl appearance for NIU and the Mid-American Conference.
There was the thrilling win at Army in West Point, all the Jordan Lynch heroics, the school-record 12-game win streak.
NIU’s 44-37 overtime win against Kent State in the MAC Championship was electrifying for anyone watching, whether at Ford Field or on TV.
The day after that victory, Dave Doeren, the coach who had led the Huskies to 12 consecutive wins, left for N.C. State. In a surprise the day after that, offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Rod Carey was named Doeren’s successor, the same day NIU’s Orange Bowl bid was announced.
It was certainly a hectic 72 hours for NIU’s program.
And then there was the month of hype leading up to the game, which was unlike any other bowl game experience for NIU.
Heading into the season, I was expecting to watch a bowl game in a place like Detroit, Mobile, Ala., or Boise, Idaho. Never did I (nor did anyone else in DeKalb) see the Huskies in a BCS game. Covering Orange Bowl week in south Florida was a week I’ll never forget.
Despite the 31-10 loss to Florida State, it was still a heck of a season for NIU.
The 2012 team will go down as the greatest team in NIU history, and there isn’t really a debate (condolences to the 1983, 2003 and 2011 teams). When the final polls are announced Tuesday after the BCS National Championship Game, the Huskies should become the first NIU team to finish the season ranked.
With the unprecedented 2012 season in the books, it’s never too early to look ahead to 2013.
We will probably never see a year like 2012 again, although with the new system, which will guarantee a big-time bowl slot to the best team from the “Group of Five” conferences, coming up in 2014, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to see the Huskies in another major bowl in the future.
Next season will bring a lot of positives, but as always, there will be question marks.
Let’s start with the positives. For starters, Jordan Lynch and his all-world numbers will be back. The 4,953 yards of total offense (including the Orange Bowl) will be tough to top, but it will be interesting to see if Lynch can top those impressive numbers. He also has the entire offensive line returning, as well as running back Akeem Daniels, who came up big at the end of the season.
Though the NIU offense loses top receiver Martel Moore, the group should be very strong in 2013, and won’t be expected to miss a beat. Just think, at the start of the year, this unit was looked at as a possible concern.
The defense, on the other hand, was expected to be strong this year. And it was, even though I felt it still was overlooked all year, and went into the Orange Bowl ranked No. 18 in the country in scoring defense.
Now, let’s go to some possible question marks for 2013. And yes, they’re there.
I’ll get started with Carey. I thought it was a good decision to promote the guy who ran the high-octane offense most of the year into the head coaching spot. That being said, he’s still unproven as a head coach, and has to replace four assistants from this year’s team.
The defense, which was so good and underrated this season, loses a lot of key contributors — cornerback Rashaan Melvin, linebackers Victor Jacques and Tyrone Clark, safety Demetrius Stone, defensive tackle Nabal Jefferson, as well as defensive ends Alan Baxter and Sean Progar.
There is still talent there, with players such as safety Jimmie Ward, who led the Huskies with 90 tackles, and defensive end Joe Windsor, who had seven sacks in a reserve role. Additionally, players such as defensive tackle Ken Bishop, linebacker Jamaal Bass and cornerbacks Marlon Moore and Sean Evans will certainly be counted on heavily.
I have to mention the schedule as well. This year’s nonconference slate was easy. The Huskies faced a disappointing 4-8 Iowa squad, a two-win Army team and a Kansas team that failed to get a victory over a Football Bowl Subdivision team.
Next year will be tougher. The Huskies open up the season against Iowa, this time at Kinnick Stadium, and go to Purdue on Sept. 28.
This year’s MAC crossover slate was also ridiculously easy. The Huskies’ three opponents – Umass, Akron and Buffalo – combined for six wins. The schedule makers won’t be so kind in 2013.
Despite the question marks I just mentioned, I don’t see a situation where I’m not putting NIU first in the MAC West when my preseason ballot comes in July.
For any NIU player, coach or fan, 2012 was a year for the ages, something nobody will ever forget. There’s a good chance the people of DeKalb will never see anything like it again.
However, there’s certainly plenty to look forward to in 2013.
• Steve Nitz is a sports reporter for the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @SNitz_DDC.