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Huskies live in the Land of Almost

Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch, left, runs over Ball State safety Dae'Shaun Hurley
Northern Illinois QB Jordan Lynch runs over Dae'Shaun Hurley for a 16-yard touchdown.
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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DEKALB, Ill.

Northern Illinois wants to connect to the big city of Chicago, and is close, but just outside the reach of its last suburb.

In fact, it’s lost out in the cornfields somewhere.

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It wants to connect to big-time college football, and is close, but plays in the stepchild of the big time, the Mid-American Conference, and is ranked No. 15 in the BCS standings despite hardly anyone ever having seen it. It wants quarterback Jordan Lynch to be a Heisman Trophy candidate, and he’s close, but . . .

“If Jordan isn’t in the conversation for the Heisman, I don’t know what they were watching,’’ Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey said after the Huskies beat Ball State 48-27 on Wednesday night. “They’re asleep.’’

Carey was taking the opportunity to speak to a group of national sports reporters, who found their way to DeKalb for this game. And he had a point. Lynch has been piling up incredible numbers all season, though no one has seen him. On Wednesday, in what was one of the biggest MAC games ever, on national TV, he ran for two touchdowns and threw for two more. He ran for 123 yards and threw for 345, completing 81.5 percent of his passes.

Best of all, in the second half, Lynch looked like Johnny Manziel in linebacker’s clothes. He was about to be clobbered when he suddenly ended up running for a first down. He was going to be stuffed by two defenders and slithered away and threw 25 yards downfield.

I’ve spent time around most of the top teams this year, and I’m not going to say that Northern Illinois is like Alabama or Florida State. But Northern Illinois should be on the map, beyond a courtesy ranking for its 10-0 record.

Jordan Lynch should be in the discussion. He’s a tough guy, a Chicagoan, playing in the bitter cold, leading his team on a 94-yard drive just when things were starting to look bad. As someone who is from Chicago, I can say this for sure:

Lynch is exactly what Chicagoans want.

If only they were watching Northern.

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“I believe we get disrespected all over the place,’’ he said. “All we do is win games and do our job. I don’t think we should be punished for that.’’

It’s just that Northern lives in the land of Almost. It’s too hard to place them.

When the game was over, the crowd was chanting “BCS’’ and some guy held a sign saying “We Want Fresno.’’

That’s who Northern Illinois is competing with now, Fresno State. They are both going for the spot in the BCS bowls reserved for the best Almost Big-Time Team, as long as one of them is ranked in the top 12. Northern got it last year and lost to Florida State in the Orange Bowl.

Fresno is ranked ahead of Northern, at No. 14, now. They are tied in the computer rankings, meaning it’s down to human votes. Northern hopes that voters saw them for the first time Wednesday and will be swayed.

I met with Carey in his office before the season, and he had no problem accepting Northern’s place. It has a nice, new 100-yard indoor practice facility that came from $9.5 million in donations.

It’s great. But it does not have a weight room with imported Brazilian wood floors, like Oregon’s new palace/facility.

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“Just from a dollar standpoint, we’re not going to be them,’’ Carey said. “But we can be the best we need to be.

“Things changed when the conference when to a BCS bowl game last year. Thankfully, it was us. You get that attitude: 'How do you classify us?’

“I don’t know the answer. I don’t know what the future will bring, other than winning answers a lot of questions. We’ve been winning here a long time. I know that when you ask, `Do you know Northern Illinois?’ A lot of people say yes. They didn’t before.’’

This is Carey’s first year as head coach. In 2011, he was the offensive line coach. The next year, he was offensive coordinator. And when head coach Dave Doeren left for North Carolina State, Carey was promoted to head coach late last season.

Think about this: Carey’s first game as a head coach at any level was the Orange Bowl.

Nervous?

“Oh yeah, yeah,’’ he said. “Course. There was a ton of that going on.’’

It was no fluke for Carey to reach the top job. He is Northern’s third coach in four years. Northern has become a great place for major programs to find young head coaches with experience at a top level.

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So if coaches are going to be leaving all the time, the plan at Northern is to avoid starting over every other year. Hire from within. Keep the system in place.

Before Doeren, Jerry Kill left for Minnesota. And if the hope is to keep things together while coaches leave, and to build a program into a family, like Gonzaga in college basketball, that still disrupts things for the players.

Lynch, now on his third head coach, told me that after Kill left, the players got together to talk it out. The older players took control of the meeting, Lynch said, saying the program isn’t about the coaches.

It’s about the players. This program is theirs.

“Coach Kill told us,’’ Lynch said. “It was our banquet day and he came down and said he’d accepted a job. The whole team came together and people started talking: The players are what make a university and a program. So now, we hold our own leadership meetings. No coaches are in there.

“In the MAC, you kind of expect the coaches to go to a bigger school for the pay raise.’’

Carey, who keeps pictures his kids drew on his desk, says, “My wife would kill me,’’ if he tried to leave Northern. And he talked about the balancing act of running a team that the players have taken control of, yet having his own stamp and retaining authority.

But that’s just how it can work in the Land of Almost. It even involves playing a game on Wednesday night — and next Wednesday, and the following Tuesday — just to get on national TV and have some spotlight.

“What do you mean?’’ Carey told me after the game. “This is our weekend.’’

They’re looking to define a new map. Maybe a new calendar, too.

Tagged: Illinois, Northern Illinois, Jordan Lynch

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