Updated: 12:50 a.m.
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Northern Illinois earned and deserved the right to play in the Orange Bowl, but in a 31-10 loss, the Huskies didn't always look as if they belonged on the same field as Florida State.
Ultimately, Rod Carey's squad was overmatched by a team bigger, faster and stronger across the board. FSU had a massive athletic advantage, but the Seminoles were unable to put the game out of reach -- despite a truckload of chances -- until the fourth quarter.
"After the fourth quarter, we let it slip away," wide receiver Martel Moore said, "and then we didn't retaliate like we were supposed to do, like we've done all season."
But NIU had a spurt of momentum in the third quarter, pumping life into the stagnant Huskies' offense if only for a fleeting moment. Jordan Lynch -- who struggled all game -- hit Akeem Daniels for a 55-yard gain on third-and-15, followed that with a 22-yard run and finished the drive with an 11-yard touchdown strike to Moore.
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The Huskies then, in true underdog fashion, attempted and recovered an onside kick. Lynch drove NIU into FSU territory, but threw the Huskies' surge away with an interception trying to thread an impossible needle.
An FSU offense that often appeared disinterested helped keep Northern Illinois within striking distance. But NIU didn't have a Herculean effort in them Tuesday night, falling short of what would've been necessary for the Huskies to be competitive.
"It got frustrating at times," Lynch said. "We tried to keep our composure and we had a lot of good stuff. We didn't execute at times, myself, I missed a lot of throws out there that would've helped our O-line out. There's a reason they're a top-five defense in the nation."
Still, despite its three-touchdown loss, Northern Illinois deserved to be in South Florida, enjoying 70-degree weather while DeKalb shivered in 9-degree temperatures.
By the letter of the law, NIU's season merited a bid to the Orange Bowl. They did what was necessary to get to this point, to have the opportunity to play a champion hailing from a power conference. Sure, they could've beat Iowa Sept. 1 at Soldier Field, but as a Top 16 team ranked higher than two automatically-qualifying conference champs (Louisville and Wisconsin), the Huskies earned their bid to the biggest game in program history.
The game didn't validate the MAC so much as it validated the system, one that admitted a Cinderella into the dance while a bevy of Top 10 SEC teams stood on the sidelines. That access won't go away when the FBS level shifts to a new playoff format in 2014, as the top-ranked team from the Big East, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt will be guaranteed a spot in a "big" bowl. So in theory, access will be easier -- and at the least, simpler.
NIU cleared the BCS hurdle, and did so before any other program in the MAC. But national relevancy isn't built in a single season. It took Boise State years of success to move from being a novelty to being taken seriously. While Carey refused to answer a question about the next step for the program, Moore made it clear NIU's goal is to be at the level of the gold standard among non-power conference schools.
"Going to be a Boise (State) or TCU, hopefully," Moore, a senior, said of where he hopes the program will go. "The teams have been getting better ever since I got here. I think it's going to continue to get better, and everybody works hard to be a Boise or a TCU."
That explanation went a step further -- probably one that's too far, since in the age of cash grabs in conference realignment NIU doesn't offer much, even if the program achieves a level of sustained success.
"Just keep working hard to eventually move into a bigger conference so we could play other opponents, like tonight," Moore continued. "Just playing against Florida State, they're the best team in the ACC. We can play with any other ACC team."
It'll take years of sustained success for NIU's best chance to win a major bowl game to be on a wing and a prayer, when onside kicks won't be a necessary component of an upset-minded gameplan. This year was a step in the right direction, even with a loss in a game grudgingly dominated by FSU.
"The fact that we lost doesn't put a damper on the overall season, we had a 12-win season for the first time in school history," offensive lineman Matt Krempel said. "I think we are going to take motivation out of tonight and move forward."