Despite Orange Bowl defeat, NIU takes step toward its goal

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Despite Orange Bowl defeat, NIU takes step toward its goal

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."

DeShone Kizer stays the same leader for new group of Notre Dame teammates

DeShone Kizer stays the same leader for new group of Notre Dame teammates

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A number of teammates took the field for the first time with DeShone Kizer during the cacophony of Sunday night’s atmosphere at Darrell K. Royal Stadium in Austin. And much as Kizer did last year, he led the Irish offense with a certain kind of poise and mentality that deftly toes the line between confident and cocky. 

“When we were down by two touchdowns or when it was tied, he had the same demeanor,” sophomore receiver C.J. Sanders said. “That really speaks volumes about him as a man.”

Kizer wowed his teammates a year ago when he subbed in for the injured Malik Zaire and threw a game-winning touchdown to Will Fuller. It wasn’t just for the throw, but it was also for the way in which the quarterback conducted himself in a hostile, pressure-packed environment. 

Last year’s Irish offense, though, was loaded with leaders. Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin and Chris Brown were pillars on that team, and there were veterans all around like Fuller, C.J. Prosise, Steve Elmer and Amir Carlisle. 

Notre Dame only returned a handful of upperclassmen who played on that 2015 team in Kizer, Torii Hunter Jr., Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson (running back Tarean Folston was injured in Week 1 against Texas, and tight end Durham Smythe missed the remainder of the regular season after an injury in Week 2). 

So that meant there was quite a bit of inexperience permeating Notre Dame’s offense Sunday night. But some of those greenhorns said Kizer’s composure and confidence helped them ease into a roaringly-intense evening. 

“When we were down, he brought us together and said we’re going to drive and score and come back,” sophomore receiver Equanimeous St. Brown said, adding that message from Kizer gave him and the rest of the Irish offense a confidence boost in the second half. 

“What young guys typically don’t understand when they go into that environment is that it’s not too much different from what you’re doing in practice,” Kizer said. “When you step in front of 100,000 people, there’s a lot of noise and that could definitely create some adrenaline. But other than that, we’re playing the same game that we’ve been playing all summer. 

“The plays have been made time and time again all offseason and just understanding that when they’re out there, they’re expected to make those same exact plays and all they have to do is do that and do that well. You don’t have to go out there and be someone else. We have a really good coaching staff who put you in good positions to make big plays and all you have to do is execute what they say.” 

Leadership is one of those nebulous things every football player and coach will tell you is necessary, but it’s a quality that’s impossible to quantify. It’s not an end-all, be-all for an offense or defense — Notre Dame, after all, didn’t score when it got the ball back after Jarron Jones’ miraculous blocked PAT, which probably had more to do with the loss of Hunter Jr. than anything else — but it is something that can be pointed to as an asset in close games. 

And with Kizer quarterbacking the offense, Notre Dame has to feel confident in its ability to hang in close games. It still needs its special teams, defense (which was primarily behind recent losses to Stanford and Texas) and coaching (behind the loss to Clemson) to come through, but the next time Notre Dame finds itself in a high-pressure, hostile situation, it can count on Kizer to keep things calm. 

And that counts for something, whatever the extent of it is. 

“Before the game he kind of talked to us, got in front of us and told us hey, I don’t care how young you are, I know you guys can make plays,” Sanders said. “So just hearing that from him developed a comfort level to know that he can depend on us. Hearing that from him really made a big difference.” 

Loyola excited for upcoming season, trip to Spain

Loyola excited for upcoming season, trip to Spain

Loyola didn't have the season they were hoping for in 2015-16 but they're optimistic that things can turn around for the upcoming season. Even though the Loyola roster is filled with newcomers, the Ramblers are hopeful that a summer trip to Spain can help give them a head start.

As part of the trip, Loyola will get 10 extra practices and four games against Spanish competition that will give the team some much-needed experience before practice officially begins in October.

Head coach Porter Moser is already happy about working with this group, which features some productive returnees and a lot of talented newcomers.

"We play four games over there. They get that feel of being coached in a game at this level with their teammates," Moser said. "So then when we start back up in October they have a sense of some of the things we're trying to teach, some of the things of what to expect. And I think that's such a big element."

On a team full of new players, it will be important for senior guard Milton Doyle to have a bounce-back year for Loyola after a disappointing junior campaign. A former star at Marshall, Doyle saw his shooting percentages dip last season as the Loyola coaching staff challenged him to improve for his final season of college basketball. 

Moser is happy with the strides that Doyle has made this summer as he's added over 10 pounds of muscle to now play at 192 pounds. Also committed on the defensive end of the floor and being a team leader, Doyle is the Ramblers' only senior this season, so he'll be counted on to be a productive presence.

"It's a lot this year just because we had four seniors leave last year and I'm the last senior," Doyle said. "So it's my job to make sure everyone stays on track and everyone is uplifted, even when coaches get on them. That's my job right now."

Junior wing Donte Ingram — a former Simeon product — and junior guard Ben Richardson also return as key contributors from last year's team while Iowa State transfer guard Clayton Custer is expected to come in and be a major factor in the team's backcourt rotation.

As for the newcomers, Moser compared juco transfer forward Aundre Jackson favorably to former Loyola forward Christian Thomas while Vlatko Granic gives the team a stretch option at forward that they didn't have in the past. The team's freshmen are also very talented as guard Matt Chastain has shown solid athleticism and a good basketball IQ through some early practices. 

Another freshman guard, Cameron Satterwhite, is coming off of a torn ACL that cost him his senior season, but the Loyola staff is optimistic about his recovery for this season. Croatian freshman guard Bruno Skokna is also recovering from injury as he has played against professionals in Europe the last few seasons on an amateur contract. He is expected to be cleared soon so that he can return to action this season.

"I love this group because it's a group full of gym rats. This is a really enthusiastic group," Moser said. "They've come together, we've got a lot of newcomers. That's the benefit, that's why we did the Spain trip this summer."

Loyola takes its trip to Spain from Aug. 12-22 as they'll hit cities like Barcelona and Madrid during the trip.