MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — On Northern Illinois middle linebacker Victor Jacques' left shoulder, a tattoo featuring a giant orange in the middle of clouds over the Miami skyline stretches across his skin.
Near his bicep, a dolphin jumps out of the water. It took a local artist four hours to etch the scene on Jacques' arm that commemorated Tuesday night's Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium — the biggest football game in NIU history.
"It was a good homecoming,'' said Jacques, a Miami native. "But this isn't the ending I wanted.''
No, but regardless of a gutsy 31-10 loss to a far superior Florida State team the Huskies' memories of bowl week will last as long as Jacques' tattoo and the overall experience be every bit as indelible.
"We still had a great season,'' NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch said after his team's first defeat in exactly four months.
Not even NIU losing by 21 in a game that really never was close diminished that.
Huskies coach Rod Carey felt too perturbed to put anything in perspective immediately afterward but teams from the Mid-American Conference playing in a Bowl Championship Series game always will value the journey more than the destination. Approaching it any other way wastes the opportunity for the NIUs of the college football world to turn the accomplishment of getting here into positive momentum for recruiting and campus morale.
An upset would have been epic for NIU but it was hardly urgent. Oh, the Huskies wanted to beat Florida State as badly as they wanted to beat Kent State or Toledo. But they didn't have to do so to capitalize on a historic, memorable season.
The 60 minutes of the game itself were mostly forgettable. The Huskies hung around until the fourth quarter but every series Florida State didn't score felt like a major relief. As expected, the Seminoles used their speed to make NIU players look like plodding Midwestern farm boys. The holes on offense closed quicker than they did against Bowling Green and opened wider for NIU's defense, which gave up a whopping 534 yards.
On Florida State's 60-yard touchdown run by Lonnie Pryor — the fullback — bad angles NIU defensive backs took reminded everybody the Huskies don't regularly face backs that explosive. On NIU's first third down offensively, Lynch failed to get to the corner the way he did so often against MAC competition. And it never got easier.
"The best defense we played all year,'' Lynch said. "They were always in the right spot at the right time. There's a reason they're a top five defense.''
The Seminoles did what no opponent had done to Lynch. They rattled the quarterback, such as when he forced an interception to kill a third-quarter drive with the Huskies trailing 17-10.
"I was trying to throw low and away and I missed inside,'' Lynch said. "Probably not the smartest thing to do there.''
Lynch's throws seemed rushed and his runs harried. His most impressive play in the first half was a surprise pooch punt that pinned Florida State at the 5. Completing 15 of 41 passes for 176 yards and rushing 23 times for 44 yards hardly allowed Lynch to back up the big talk attributed to him last week that Florida State used as fuel. The Sporting News quoted Lynch as saying NIU planned to bring Florida State's defense to "their knees'' in the fourth quarter, comments Carey angrily denied during a postgame question directed at his quarterback.
"I'm going to take that one, OK?'' Carey said. "Those were taken out of context, and that's not right. He didn't say that and I've been waiting until after the game to say that. I was there. He did not make those comments.''
Carey's raw emotions after his first game as NIU head coach, a product of passion and inexperience, showed how badly he wanted this. As did Carey's nothing-to-lose approach evident early when he called a fake punt on his own 33 in the first quarter that went for a 35-yard gain. That is what coaches do upon realizing their team is overmatched. The onside kick NIU recovered in the third quarter stopped much of America from reaching for the remote. It only delayed the inevitable.
"You have to play to win,'' Carey said of his daring moves. "We saw some things and knew we had it.''
A loud and proud contingent of NIU supporters matched up well against all the Florida State Tomahawk choppers in the crowd of 72,073. Six busloads of students arrived Monday night from DeKalb. They joined fans in red T-shirts who took pictures in front of the Dan Marino statue and carried home-made signs. One promoted, "Chicago's Other Jordan,'' for the 2013 Heisman Trophy. Another proclaimed, "Every Dog Has His Day — This is Ours.'' Many contained unprintable advice for ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, who called NIU's inclusion into the Bowl Championship Series a joke.
Herbstreit's comments ensured NIU players wouldn't lack motivation against Florida State. Alas, too often they lacked execution.
But for NIU, this wasn't about proving Herbstreit right or wrong. This wasn't about getting the last word after an Orange Bowl representative, according to CBSSports.com story confirmed by an NIU source, told an NIU staffer late one night in a hospitality room that, "You guys (NIU) don't even deserve to be here."
This was about a bunch of BCS-busters from Northern Illinois who made themselves comfortable along South Beach during the vacation of a lifetime that validated their special season.
The Huskies romped around their ritzy team hotel. They swam in the ocean and dined on all-you-can-eat Brazilian beef. They brought joy to children at an area hospital. They got tattoos on their arms and played their hearts out.
They represented themselves in a way that enhanced the image of NIU football and the MAC — and that mattered this trip as much as the outcome.