Jim and Sheila Lynch waited patiently at midfield while the accolades were read. Six NCAA records, two more conference marks and 14 NIU records in total (15 counting the career total touchdown mark he’d eclipse on the night). As Jordan Lynch’s name is announced in front of a surprising crowd of 17,679 on a blustery, snow-covered November night, the crowd rises to its feet as the Lynchs embrace.
Before the records and the adulation of NIU fans, though, Jim and Sheila remember the skinny kid who used to raid their kitchen after midnight, pounding peanut butter sandwiches like eventual MAC opponents just to gain an extra pound or two.
They said he’d never be a D-I quarterback. If he was lucky he’d get a shot at safety, but with each and every bite he’d think, “I’ll show them.”
Four possessions into his 11th and final start at Huskie Stadium, Lynch has 200 yards rushing and three total touchdowns. The only way he can impact NIU’s BCS chances or his own (albeit more modest) Heisman chances is to lay an egg, but he’s absolutely fantastic anyways. The wind is far too brisk to mount any significant passing attack into its gritting teeth, so Lynch takes to the ground.
With 12:52 left in the fourth quarter he exits the field on fourth-and-one in lieu of a NIU field goal that puts the game out of reach, but before he leaves, he has broken his own NCAA record for rushing yards by a quarterback.
He’ll play one more play (a handoff) on the final possession in order to leave to a standing ovation. It’s the final time he’ll step foot on Brigham Field at Huskie Stadium, and he has given a crowd that weathered a winter storm to see him in action one last time a performance to remember him by.
As the clock winds with Jordan Lynch on the sideline in favor of backup quarterback Matt McIntosh, he finishes his career at NIU 11-0 at home, and the Huskies have just won their 23rd consecutive regular season bout. Despite only being a starter for two seasons, he’s established himself as the most decorated player in NIU history, and he’s not quite finished.
An invitation to the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation is a realistic possibility. A return trip to the BCS–an unprecedented achievement for a Mid-American Conference school–is within their grasp.
To think this was even possible back when he was stumbling through his parents kitchen in search of food would have taken a Picasso-like eye for the abstract.
When his head coach in high school, the legendary Frank Lenti of Mount Carmel in Chicago spoke to recruiters about him, everyone loved his athleticism but there was always an added caveat about his size. Big Ten schools came calling with designs of having Lynch walk-on or switch positions, but Lenti was adamant on finding his quarterback a scholarship offer to play QB and he did exactly that at NIU.
“Frank Lenti told me, ‘You gotta take him,’” Western Michigan head coach and former NIU recruiting coordinator P.J. Fleck said after Tuesday’s game. “And if Frank Lenti tells someone that you HAVE to take him, then you take him. And that’s what Jerry Kill did. We all kind of looked at the tape and said, ‘He’s an awesome football player.’ But, at the time, if you remember, Jordan wasn’t the most polished passer.
“But the minute Frank Lenti said, ‘He’s the toughest football player I’ve ever coached.’ We all kinda threw our hands up and went, ‘I think that decision’s made.’”
But even with Lynch getting his shot to play quarterback at the FBS level, it would be hard to imagine anything like this could happen in the MAC.
Seated comfortably behind incumbent starter Chandler Harnish, who essentially owns the majority of the quarterbacking records at NIU that Jordan Lynch is breaking, Lynch wasn’t going to get a real shot to play until he was a junior. Even then, while Northern Illinois was one of the premier teams in the league, it wasn’t a place where people are recruited to play in BCS games and earn Heisman consideration.
By the time Jordan Lynch was named the starter at NIU, the task of replacing Chandler Harnish–a job Lynch signed up for, mind you–had become a little less enviable, given that Harnish had become the most decorated quarterback in school history and the team was counting on Lynch to keep the momentum rolling.
Lynch and NIU opened their season against the Iowa Hawkeyes in Soldier Field in 2012, and while NIU fought valiantly against a Big Ten opponent and Lynch managed to rack up 119 rushing yards (including a 73-yard TD), he was hampered by rain and wind as he struggled to move the ball through the air. NIU saw an early lead evaporate with a late Iowa touchdown, and the Hawkeyes were able to pull out an 18-17 victory.
It was a rough start to Jordan Lynch’s tenure as NIU’s starting quarterback, but he’d manage to rebound in astounding fashion, taking a wrench to the system in the process.
The Huskies would go on to win their next 12 games. They beat the Kansas Jayhawks at home and then rolled through the Mid-American Conference, trouncing Toledo on national TV while Lynch put up astronomical (569 yards of total offense) numbers.
The slowly climbed back into the national conscience, eventually finding themselves in the BCS rankings and surging towards an automatic berth because of a down year in the Big Ten that saw a 7-5 Wisconsin win the conference. In the MAC championship, they played Kent State in what essentially turned out to be a BCS eliminator, and they were selected to play in the Rose Bowl against the Florida State Seminoles.
It was the first time a school from the MAC had managed to bust the BCS, and it elevated NIU’s (and Jordan’s) profile to an entirely different level. Lynch’s name popped up as a Heisman candidate (sidenote: I did this story on his campaign last November) and the program got unprecedented exposure.
It was something nobody in DeKalb or the MAC had ever expected, except Jordan Lynch, apparently.
“I always set high expectations for myself. I believe in myself, and I believe in this team,” Lynch told me after Tuesday’s 33-14 win. “I knew coming into Northern Illinois the program was on the rise. I saw what Coach Kill, Coach Doeren and Coach Carey were doing and I did see visions of it all.”
Add prophetic to the long list of adjectives we’ve seen attached to Jordan Lynch’s name so far.
However, what happened in 2012 merely set the bar for what’s happening in 2013. Jordan Lynch came back to DeKalb a household name, and NIU had lofty goals following a dismantling at the hands of Florida State in the Orange Bowl.
They redeemed themselves on the road against an improved Iowa team and then beat another Big Ten team on the road when they demolished Purdue behind four Jordan Lynch touchdowns. They methodically made their way through the MAC, winning their last three games on national TV to clinch the MAC West and an undefeated regular season.
As for Lynch, his numbers were just as astounding as in 2012. He ran for 316 yards against Central Michigan to originally set the NCAA record for rushing yards in a single game by a quarterback before breaking it himself on Tuesday. And as he ran continued to run over, through and around opposing defenders, his teammates rallied behind him.
“With how strong and fast Jordan is, we never know when he might break one,” Junior offensive lineman Luke Eakes said. “That means we always have to stay on our blocks, and we’re proud of our blocking.
“We take a ton of pride (in seeing Lynch set records). We’re prideful of running the ball. We get into that four-minute offense and we like running the ball and finishing off games, and I feel like we did that again tonight.”
But now, despite all the records and an undefeated regular season, Lynch and the Huskies have two major obstacles ahead.
They’ll play in the MAC Championship Game against the winner of Bowling Green and Buffalo on Friday night, and then, if things play out just right, they’ll get another shot at a BCS bowl.
If the BCS were to select its participants today, as a matter of fact, the NIU Huskies would be BCS-bound for a second consecutive season. They’d be the second non-AQ in history (TCU) to accomplish that feat.
Their biggest competition for the a bid comes from the Fresno State Bulldogs, who they just recently jumped in the BCS standing due to overwhelming love from the computers. However, they still trail the Bulldogs handily in the human polls, which account for two-thirds of the equation.
And, to make matters worse, the computer formulas are really only complete at the conclusion of championship week. To secure their place ahead of Fresno, thus earning themselves a seat at the proverbial table, they’ll have to impress the human voters in the MAC championship against whoever their opponent might be, hopefully narrowing the gap between the two schools in the human polls.
If they can make it, they’ll get an opportunity to play an elite power conference school, giving them an opportunity to silence the haters they sheepishly claim indifference to. But, deep down, you know they’re agitated by scores of analysts on ESPN (the home of #MACtion) and elsewhere who say they’ve “had their shot” and that they aren’t worthy of a bid.
Whether or not they’d be up to snuff in a BCS conference is another argument entirely, one that could only be made by straw men in small hats with a collection of the world’s tiniest violins. Because the reality is, NIU is only playing by the rules they’ve been presented with.