When Northern Illinois earned an automatic bid to a BCS bowl, many college football fans reacted with a confusion and indignation, but the Huskies still have a chance to record an incredible upset over Florida State in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day.
After wining the MAC for the second consecutive season, NIU earned a spot in a BCS bowl because its No. 15 rank was higher than No. 21 Louisville, the Big East champion, and unranked Wisconsin, the Big Ten champion.
While this is a lackluster matchup in the eyes of some, the Huskies can make this game extremely competitive if they focus on a few key areas.
Here is what Northern Illinois must do in order to beat the Seminoles.
Account for Bjoern Werner
The Huskies simply do not have athletes that are as physically gifted as the players suiting up for Florida State. The underdogs will be reminded of this every time Bjoern Werner steps onto the field.
At 6’4” and 255 pounds, Werner is a disruptive force on defense and has 13 sacks and 18 tackles for a loss this season.
NIU will need to use double teams, varied snap counts, misdirection, chip blocks and any other strategy it can possibly come up with to slow him down. No single scheme will be able to limit his impact on the game, and the offense must account for him on every single play.
If Werner spends a significant amount of time in the backfield, the Huskies will have no chance.
Establish the Running Game Early
NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch has been prolific as both a passer and a rusher this season, and if he is able to find holes in the running game early, options will open up downfield.
Lynch has 1,771 yards and the 19 touchdowns on the ground this year, in addition to his 2,962 yards and 24 touchdowns through the air.
However, due to Florida State’s fearsome pass rush—Cornellius Carradine has 11 sacks playing opposite Werner—the Huskies will need to put the Seminoles on their heels by establishing a power running game.
If the offensive line is able to get out and run block in the first half, Werner and Carradine will not be as effective as they have been all season, and Lynch will have time for plays to develop down the field.
Get to E.J. Manuel
Florida State will not be the only team in the Orange Bowl with an active pass rush, and The South Florida Sun-Sentinel’s Steve Gorten notes that NIU’s 40 sacks this season is the second-highest mark in school history.
Alan Baxter leads the team win 9.5 takedowns while Sean Progar has contributed 8.5 sacks, and Joe Windsor has added seven more.
Gorten also notes that the Seminoles turnover ratio this season is minus-seven, which ranks 96th in the nation.
If the Huskies are able to get to E.J. Manuel, he will rush his throws and NIU will have opportunities to create turnovers. Getting takeaways and turning them into point will be crucial for Northern Illinois in their quest for an upset.