Orange Bowl Preview and Prediction: Northern Illinois vs. Florida State

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EJ Manuel looks to lead Florida State to a win over Northern Illinois.

<p> Orange Bowl Preview and Prediction: Northern Illinois vs. Florida State</p>

In terms of intrigue, the Florida State-Northern Illinois matchup in the Orange Bowl has to be one of the must-see games of the postseason. After cracking the top 16 of the BCS standings, the Huskies became a polarizing case study and a lightning rod for criticism. Northern Illinois has plenty of doubters and there’s no shortage of bulletin board material for this team to rally around. The Huskies will be under the direction of a new coach, as Dave Doeren departed to NC State after the MAC Championship win over Kent State. Rod Carey was promoted from co-offensive coordinator to head coach and has a huge stage for debut on the Northern Illinois’ sideline.

While this is the first BCS bowl appearance for Northern Illinois, Florida State is back in a BCS bowl for the first time since losing 26-23 to Penn State in 2006. The Seminoles are slowly working their way back into a national power, winning 30 games over the last three years. Despite the success under Jimbo Fisher, there’s also a feeling of disappointment surrounding the program. Florida State was handled by rival Florida in Tallahassee and suffered a surprising defeat to NC State on Oct. 6. The Seminoles had the talent to compete for a national championship, yet finished 11-2 and could have some motivation issues playing Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl.

This will be the first meeting between these two teams. Florida State is 3-0 against teams from the MAC, and Northern Illinois is 2-6 against teams currently in the ACC.

Orange Bowl – Northern Illinois vs. Florida State

Date and Time: Jan. 1 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Network: ESPN
Location: Miami, Fla. (Sun Life Stadium)

When the Northern Illinois Huskies have the ball:

The mission for Florida State’s defense is simple: Stop Jordan Lynch. Of course, that’s easier said than done. The junior was one of the nation’s top quarterbacks this year, rushing for 1,771 yards and 19 touchdowns and throwing for 2,962 yards and 24 scores. Lynch tossed only five picks and was held under 100 rushing yards only one time in 2012.

Lynch clearly carries the offense for Northern Illinois, but he is far from a one-man show. Running backs Leighton Settle, Akeem Daniels and Keith Harris each had more than 200 rushing yards, with Daniels recording nine touchdowns on the ground. However, the Huskies will be without the services of Settle and Harris for the Orange Bowl, which means Daniels needs to have a big performance. 

The receiving corps is loaded with solid targets, including first-team All-MAC receiver Martel Moore. The senior caught 71 passes for 1,054 yards and 12 scores this year, which included six 100-yard performances. Lynch needs a big game from Moore, but Florida State’s secondary ranked third nationally against the pass. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safety Lamarcus Joyner were first-team All-ACC selections and were a key reason why opposing quarterbacks completed just 50 percent of their passes against the Seminoles.

Helping to keep opposing passing attacks grounded for Florida State is one of the nation's top defensive lines. Considering the Seminoles can generate a consistent pass rush with their front four, opposing quarterbacks don't have a lot of time to wait for their receivers to come open. This line held opponents to under 100 rushing yards per game (93) and averaged 2.5 sacks a game. If there is a concern about the defensive line, depth has become an issue this year. Ends Tank Carradine and Brandon Jenkins were lost for the year, which forced top recruit Mario Edwards, Jr. into more snaps than the coaching staff expected to give him this season. Although Carradine and Jenkins were big losses, Bjoern Werner had a standout season (18 TFL, 13 sacks) and is tasked with generating a pass rush against a Northern Illinois’ offensive line that averaged just one sack allowed a game this year. 

After averaging 40.7 points and nearly 500 yards a game (485.7) in the regular season, the Orange Bowl will be the toughest defensive test Northern Illinois has faced this year. The Huskies faced only two BCS opponents in 2012, recording 17 points against Iowa and 30 against Kansas. Florida State’s defense is much better than the Hawkeyes and Jayhawks but is also dealing with the loss of coordinator Mark Stoops. Defensive line coach D.J. Eliot will call the plays for the Seminoles in this game and will join Stoops at Kentucky at the conclusion of the Orange Bowl.

Stopping Lynch will be the top priority for Florida State’s defense. Expect the Seminoles to load up the box to prevent Lynch from getting over 100 yards on the ground and allow their cornerbacks to play man against Northern Illinois’ wide receivers. Lynch doesn’t have to generate huge gains on each play to be a factor. If the junior can generate three or four yards a carry, the Huskies can keep the chains moving, which should allow them a chance to hang around in this game. 

When the Florida State Seminoles have the ball:

For the fifth consecutive season, Florida State averaged over 30 points a game. The Seminoles were relatively balanced on offense, recording 203.4 yards per game on the ground and 263.3 passing yards a contest.

Despite those numbers, the Seminoles' offense bogged down at times. Quarterback EJ Manuel finished 10th nationally in pass efficiency but can be a streaky passer. Manuel threw for 3,106 yards and 22 touchdowns, while tossing 10 picks on 349 attempts. The senior has struggled at times in the early portion of games, so it’s important for Fisher to get Manuel comfortable in the first quarter.

Florida State boasts a deep collection of targets at receiver, along with an emerging weapon at tight end. Sophomore Rashad Greene led the team with 52 receptions for 696 yards and five touchdowns. Rodney Smith, Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw each recorded over 400 receiving yards, while Greg Dent chipped in 24 catches for 313 yards. Tight end Nick O’Leary became a bigger factor in the offense late in the season, catching six passes (with two going for scores) over the final three contests.

The Seminoles’ rushing attack suffered an early blow this year, losing Chris Thompson to a torn ACL against Miami. After coming back from a serious back injury, Thompson was well on his way to a 1,000-yard season. Sophomores Devonta Freeman and James Wilder have been steady in Thompson’s absence, combining for 1,218 yards and 19 rushing scores. Expect both players to find running room against a Northern Illinois defense allowing 139 rushing yards per game. 

As mentioned above with Northern Illinois’ offense, this is its toughest test of the season. While the MAC is known for offense, Florida State has more depth, speed and talent than any team the Huskies have played this year. Northern Illinois' defense was one of the best in the MAC this year, allowing only 19 points a game and recording 2.9 sacks per contest.

Forcing turnovers will be a huge component of Northern Illinois’ upset bid, especially considering Florida State ranks 96th nationally in turnover margin. The Huskies need a few breaks to go their way to pull the upset, and it may take a touchdown on defense or special teams to knock off the Seminoles.

Final Analysis

The Huskies will have their moments in this game but it won’t be enough to beat Florida State. Even without Stoops coordinating the defense, the Seminoles’ front seven will hold Lynch in check, while the secondary will prevent many big plays. Northern Illinois should be able to hold its own early on the defensive side, but Florida State’s depth and speed will eventually take control in the second half. Motivation is an issue for the Seminoles, and they cannot afford to take Northern Illinois’ lightly. The Huskies will hang around for three quarters, while the Seminoles pull away in the fourth quarter to earn their fifth consecutive bowl victory.

Prediction: Florida State 38, Northern Illinois 20


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