While Florida State reached the Orange Bowl, just as many expected, there’s also an air of lost potential about the ‘Noles this season. It’s why, despite never playing in a game of this caliber, many think that Northern Illinois has a shot at an upset. So do they? We take a look at how the matchup shakes out.
Bowl Game: Discover Orange Bowl
Location: Miami Gardens, Fla.
First Year: 1935
2012 Participants: Florida State Seminoles (11-2) vs. Northern Illinois Huskies (12-1)
Last Meeting: None
Florida State (previous bowl game: 18-14 win vs. Notre Dame in 2011 Champs Sports Bowl)
On paper, Florida State was one of the country’s most dominant teams. Conference champions, 12th in scoring in the country (39.9 points per game) and sixth in scoring defense (15.1 points allowed per game). Yet, what will stand out most is how they struggled in key moments. Up 16-0 against NC State early in the season, the team began showing its deficiencies on offense. Then in the regular season finale, the defense showed its own issues, letting rival Florida rack up 24 points in the fourth quarter of an FSU loss. The common thread when they struggled most? EJ Manuel‘s consistency, or lack thereof. In four of their closest games, Manuel put up just two scores to five picks — not exactly the type of performances a championship-caliber team wants out of its senior quarterback. While all of their games certainly weren’t against “elite” competition, NIU’s defense did manage to force 15 interceptions and allow just 10 scores (seventh-best in the country), so that’s certainly something the ‘Noles should be prepared for. On defense, Florida State showed some holes without star defensive end Tank Carradine during the ACC title game, and it’s unlikely the team’s front-seven will be as aggressive without him in this matchup either. The Huskies allowed just 14 sacks all season — in part due to an elite offensive line, and also due to quarterback Jordan Lynch‘s elusiveness. It’s not impossible, but FSU will have to crack the code on containing Lynch if they hope to pull out a win.
Northern Illinois (previous bowl game: 38-20 win vs. Arkansas State in 2012 GoDaddy.com Bowl)
Northern Illinois’ success is based on just one player: Jordan Lynch. The junior passer accounted for over 4,700 yards of offense and 43 touchdowns — numbers that only Heisman winner Johnny Manziel could truly compare to this season. He’s among the most complete offensive players in the country, and an elite athlete — a hassle to keep track of on the field, and the focus of any defense. Only one team has cracked the code on him all year, and that’s Iowa in the season-opener. The Hawkeyes pressured Lynch consistently, forcing him to run out of necessity, and throw into traffic. He was off-balance, and up against an Iowa team that held onto the ball for over 38 minutes. It may be essential for FSU to replicate that strategy, but it’ll prove difficult against the 39th-best rushing defense in the country. The Seminoles’ rushing attack is balanced, sure, but they’ll need to change its make-up completely. After getting by on long runs from scrimmage, they’ll need to be content picking up four yards per carry and moving the ball methodically. If they hope to succeed in the passing game, they’ll be severely challenged by a group that was top-10 in sacks, with 38 in 13 games.
Despite some struggles, EJ Manuel was still one of the country’s better passers and senior leaders — made even better by the bevy of playmakers around him. Additionally, with a rushing attack and defense made for championship atmospheres, the ‘Noles stand as good a chance as any team to contain Jordan Lynch. Obviously, they’ll need to do a better job of rushing the passer without Carradine, but it’s conceivable that the extra prep time for this game (unlike the ACC Championship Game, which happened the week after his torn ACL) will be a huge asset. It’ll be up to Bjoern Werner to function as the primary pass-rusher, while also containing Lynch. As Kent State learned in the MAC Championship Game, flushing him out of the pocket isn’t necessarily a positive outcome. Florida State can and should win here, but again, it won’t be without a significant investment in the run-game and pass-rush. Expect a different Florida State team than we’ve seen before, and one that plays up to its championship billing. Prediction: Florida State 34, Northern Illinois 24