Experienced seniors, rookie coach lead NIU back to Detroit

DETROIT – Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey stood up from his seat at his Thursday news conference at Ford Field and carried off the Mid-American Conference West Division trophy, the program’s fourth in as many seasons.

“It’s obviously good to be back in Detroit,” Carey said earlier. “It means you did something right during the season.”

Sitting beside Carey on Thursday were NIU seniors Jordan Lynch, the conference's first-ever Walter Camp Player of the Year Award finalist and Jimmie Ward, whom Bowling Green coach Dave Clawson called “as fine a safety as there is in this conference.”

Neither Lynch nor Ward, as part of a 17-man senior class, has known a season that didn’t include a spot in the MAC title game. Somehow, that group of seniors has managed consistency even when the head coaching position has been something of a revolving door. They have played for three different head coaches during their time in DeKalb.

Though Friday’s game against Bowling Green will be Carey’s first time in the MAC Championship as a head coach, because he’s been with the program since 2011 he knows that many have come to expect to see NIU in the conference championship game each season.

And while the expectations continue to rise outside the program for the unbeaten Huskies, Carey insists his team is trying to meet an even higher standard.

“We have higher expectations for ourselves internally than anybody externally has for us,” Carey said. “If that’s an outside expectation, I can tell you it’s probably not a high enough expectation for us.”

Lynch, whom many expect to be invited to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist as well, spoke of the growth he has gone through personally in the program.

“I’ve made a lot of strides. I’ve come a long way,” said Lynch, who, when asked how many stars he had been rated as a high-school prospect, laughed and said “the lowest one.”

But he added: “For this team, the best has yet to come.”

If Carey had been feeling any pressure to match the success of his predecessors, he certainly didn’t show it. But that isn’t to say his first trip to the MAC Championship has been without its stresses. He said he lay awake in bed until 2 a.m. Thursday and had to be up by 6 o’clock for the team’s departure.

When asked what it was that kept him stirring into the morning hours, Carey rattled off a laundry list of potential trouble spots: NIU’s woes on third downs, both sides of the Bowling Green line and its impressive ground game.

“But that’s what we do as coaches," Carey said. "We’re supposed to worry, right?”

Now that the Falcons are all that stand between the Huskies and a likely trip to the Fiesta Bowl, Carey has plenty to burden him. But with a senior class so accustomed to success, the trip to Detroit, which has become as close to a sure thing as a title-game berth can be, was never in jeopardy.