DEKALB, Ill. — This is what Jordanesque means in these parts.
It means showing grace under pressure, just like in Chicago. It means a quarterback escaping a blitz on third-and-11 and hitting his wide receiver for a 25-yard gain to keep the go-ahead drive alive. It means delivering a beautiful 36-yard spiral, on cue two plays later, for a fourth-quarter touchdown that left America as impressed with the quarterback's passing as his running.
Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch did all that and more Wednesday in a convincing 48-27 victory over Ball State that improved the Huskies' Bowl Championship Series chances and increased Lynch's shot at getting invited to New York City as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
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"The Heisman is a team effort," Lynch said humbly. "The only way you win the Heisman is if you win games. I can't win games by myself."
Ball State coach Pete Lembo might be the latest Mid-American Conference coach to disagree. Whether NIU ultimately jumps Fresno State in the BCS poll to qualify depends on factors outside the Huskies' control. But Lynch left little doubt he deserves to be considered one of the five most outstanding players in the country — a point coach Rod Carey loudly drove home afterward.
"If Jordan isn't in the conversation for the Heisman I don't know what people were watching, Obviously, people were asleep," Carey said at the postgame news conference, unsolicited.
As for Carey's team, the Huskies got all they could handle from Ball State, raising legitimate questions about what a BCS-conference champion might do. People looking for indisputable proof that NIU belongs in the BCS for the second straight season didn't find it until the fourth quarter when the Huskies exploded for 21 points in 5 minutes 3 seconds. That was the quarter Lynch punctuated the most clutch performance of his senior year with the stakes the highest.
Young football players grow up dreaming of Friday nights and Saturday afternoons. Nobody dreams about the wonderment of the Wednesday Night Lights. But, in reality, it would be hard to top this Wednesday for the players involved. For one memorable night, all eyes in college football focused on a frozen field in rural DeKalb County 60 miles west of Chicago for an entertaining game with national implications on ESPN.
The NIU sports information office issued 115 media credentials — three times its normal demand. Sports Illustrated dispatched a correspondent. The New York Times was here. Somewhere, David Letterman surely cared.
Full disclosure: The last time I attended an NIU-Ball State football game, I worried about making tackles, not deadline. As I have previously mentioned, my four years playing safety for Ball State did a persuasive job steering me toward sports journalism. The last Ball State game of my college football career was nationally televised too — the 1989 California Raisin Bowl — and chasing a Fresno State wide receiver into the end zone confirmed graduate school at Northwestern as the wisest choice. It was at Medill where I learned the objectivity necessary on nights your alma mater plays in a game NIU folks called the biggest in Huskie Stadium history.
In the stands, one bundled-up NIU student boldly held up a sign: "WE WANT BAMA." (No, you still don't). In the parking lot before kickoff, a veteran NFL scout shivered eating dinner off a plate resting on the hood of a car. The avalanche of interest made it impossible for NIU to accommodate every NFL scout in the press box so three poor souls were forced to brave the 32-degree temperatures.
They endured the elements to see several pro prospects but most notably Lynch of NIU and Keith Wenning of Ball State. One night after the Jabari Parker-Andrew Wiggins matchup captivated college basketball at the United Center, Lynch outdueled Wenning as each quarterback confounded the defense with contrasting styles.
Wenning, who the Bears have scouted extensively according to a source, completed 35 of 49 passes for 324 yards with one touchdown and an interception returned for a touchdown. He looked every bit the finesse passer Lynch was the forceful runner in a commercial for MAC quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger would endorse.
Lynch, the best mid-major player in college football, enhanced his Heisman resume by gaining 123 yards on 20 carries and completing 26 of 32 passes for 345 yards and a touchdown. On NIU's go-ahead scoring drive in the third quarter, Lynch kept it alive with a did-you-see-that 10-yard run to convert third-and-10. In a play bound to make the cut for Lynch's Heisman video campaign, he spun out of the grasp of a Ball State defender behind the line of scrimmage and sprinted for the first down.
"I still feel like the best is yet to come," Lynch said.
On a night when NIU needed him most, Lynch was never better.