NIU defense overshadowed, still elite

FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch and his eye-popping numbers have stolen the spotlight here, but don’t sleep on the Huskies’ defense -- Florida State certainly isn’t.

NIU is ranked No. 18 in the country in scoring defense, No. 34 in total defense, No. 11 in sacks and No. 9 in tackles for loss. It’s a major improvement from just a year ago, when the program was No. 90 in the country in scoring defense, allowing 31.08 points per game. That progress has been overshadowed by Lynch, who is easily the face of the program, but the unheralded defense has no problem with who is getting the ink as long as the team keeps winning. The Huskies have yet to face an offense, though, as fast and talented as Florida State's.

“I think our players really don't care, honestly, where that credit goes or who gets it,” said NIU defensive coordinator Jay Niemann. “One thing about Jordan Lynch, he's as humble and as gracious a person as you're going to find. … He's just one of the guys. He'd be just as close with the defensive players as he is the offensive players, so I don't think the issue of who's getting credit or any of those things is a factor with our team. They just want to win, they want to compete, they want to do well, and however we get that done, whether it's winning 40-39, or whether it's winning 7-3, at the end of the day a win is a win, so that's what they've been about.”

NIU players and coaches have agreed that while the Huskies’ defense has faced one or two elite players on each opponent they have faced, the defense has yet to see an entire team comprised entirely of those high-caliber players.

“The difference between them and the MAC, they have talent at each skill position,” said linebacker Tyrone Clark. “I’m not saying the MAC does not, but they are very skilled in each area. So one team might have one running back you have to stop, or one wide receiver you have to stop, but with them as we continue to watch film, they are a complete team. We have our work cut out for us, but we’re built for it."

The improvements in FSU’s offense -- particularly in the running game -- have paralleled that of NIU’s defense. The Noles are No. 14 in the country in scoring offense, averaging just under 40 points per game, and they’re averaging 466 yards per game. Much like NIU's defense, Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel has been overshadowed a bit by Lynch. Manuel said he has watched more film on NIU than he has any other opponent this season, simply because he’s had the time to.

“They have good players, they have good speed when you watch on film, but not anything dissimilar to the guys we’ve played before,” Manuel said. “They have a good team, so I think the biggest thing for us is to worry about our offense and focus on that and we’ll be fine.”