Inside NIU's Orange Bowl run

Updated: January 3, 2013, 12:22 PM ET
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- The Northern Illinois Huskies crashed the BCS party, and seemingly no one wanted them around.

The glass slipper never shattered for the Huskies, because it was never placed on their foot. Seconds after catching oranges to celebrate their historic selection to the Discover Orange Bowl, they were firing them back at the TV screen, where ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit was slamming NIU as undeserving despite a 12-1 record and a No. 15 spot in the final BCS standings.

[+] EnlargeEJ Manuel
AP Photo/Don KellyEJ Manuel and Florida State didn't allow NIU to have its fairytale ending.

NIU came here with a mission: prove it belonged on the big stage. Despite some very lopsided statistics, the Huskies paced Florida State on the scoreboard for three quarters before mistakes doomed them in a 31-10 loss.

"I don't think we proved what we were supposed to prove," senior wide receiver Martel Moore said afterward. "We showed it all the way up until the fourth quarter. [In] the fourth quarter, we let it slip away. We didn't retaliate like we've done all season. If we're down, we don't give up, we keep going. We let it slip out of our hands."

The Orange Bowl capped a wild month for NIU, which lost a coach (Dave Doeren to NC State) and gained a new one (Rod Carey). Carey, the Huskies' offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, made his head-coaching debut in the bowl game. Four assistants accepted jobs with Doeren but remained with the Huskies through the bowl.

The Huskies were a unique BCS bowl team with a familiar rallying cry: earn respect.

Northern Illinois opened its doors to ESPN.com during Orange Bowl week (as well as one of the final pre-bowl work days in DeKalb, Ill.), allowing complete access to staff and player meetings, practices and team events, as well as full locker room and sideline access on game day.

This is the inside story of NIU's journey to a BCS bowl.

Wednesday, Dec. 19 (DeKalb, Ill.)

The coaches and support staff hold their 8 a.m. staff meeting at the Yordon Center, NIU's football headquarters on the north end of Huskie Stadium. On their way in, they pass the GoDaddy.com Bowl championship trophy, which is appropriately filled with oranges.

Carey sits at the head of a rectangular table, surrounded by his assistants. They start with the injury report before discussing plans for the day's practice, which, depending on the weather, will be held in the stadium or at the DeKalb Recreation Center, a public facility two miles away. NIU is one of the last MAC programs without its own indoor facility, although one is being built and will be ready for the 2013 season.

Carey tells Brad Ohrt, the team's strength and conditioning coach, that he'll have the players run at least one "gasser" after the workout.

"F------ hope so," Ohrt replies, as the staff chuckles.

"OK," Carey says, "recruiting."

Four assistants immediately leave the room: defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen, who also had been the team's recruiting coordinator; wide receivers coach Frisman Jackson; cornerbacks coach Richard McNutt and running backs coach/special teams coordinator Mike Uremovich. All four are joining Doeren at NC State. Although they'll stay through the bowl, they're also recruiting for the Wolfpack. In recruiting, they're now the enemy.

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Adam Rittenberg/ESPN.comEven during bowl week, coaching staffs find time to talk recruiting plans.

A large board attached to one of the walls is opened; it displays NIU's recruiting targets, sorted by position. It's a dead period and coaches can make only one call per week to recruits, but recruits can call coaches as much as they like.

"Aaron," Carey says to operations staffer Aaron Christner, "will you Facebook all these guys? Tell them to call me."

After reviewing several prospects, the coaches talk about the permanent staff Carey must assemble. Carey wants to invite Thad Ward, an assistant at Western Michigan before the recent house cleaning there, to DeKalb for practice. Carey asks the assistants what they think and receives positive feedback. Some note that Ward recruits Detroit very well.

"I'm not going to rush anything," Carey says. "He's got to be a fit."

After the meeting, Carey retreats to his office. A sheet of paper on his wall displays "The Vocabulary of Success," and lists phrases to always use (I can, it will, I am confident that) and to never use (I won't, nothing will, it will never).

A recruit calls.

"You let me know what I need to know to help you make your decision," Carey says, adding, "I'm a coach. We're paid to get anxious."

He tells the recruit to call again and then speaks with the recruit's coach. Minutes later, a graduate assistant arrives with breakfast -- sausage biscuits from McDonald's.

"I love you," Carey says.

Just after 9 a.m., the offensive staff waits for Carey, who will call plays at the bowl. Among the assistants is Mike Sabock, who retired from coaching after the 2011 season and joined the staff when Doeren left. Sabock, who most recently worked at Western Michigan, will coach tight ends and fullbacks through the bowl. He's no stranger to NIU after being a Huskies assistant from 1984-2007.

A row of faces line the top of one wall. They're pictures of opposing coaches, mostly defensive coordinators, who NIU faced this season. The final 12 pictures contain the signatures of Huskies star junior quarterback Jordan Lynch, who made many of the coaches look bad in NIU wins. Only the first picture, of Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker, remains unsigned. Iowa handed NIU its only loss on Sept. 1.

There's healthy debate during the meeting, especially between Jackson and quarterbacks coach Bob Cole, who looks like a tanner version of actor Chris Cooper. They talk slants versus fades, and plays featuring presnap shifts.

"Any play that gets us five yards, I want," Cole says.

"Five yards is 50," Sabock chimes in.

"That's a Cole-ism," Jackson says, grinning.

Unfortunately for the staff, only 19 of NIU's 73 offensive plays go for five yards or more against Florida State. Only one play eclipses 50. At Carey's request, Sabock diagrams a screen pass on the board that Western Michigan uses.

"That's the one they ran against us," Carey says. "Killed us."

The coaches green-light the play, naming it Larry Wing Naked Right Sabock.

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Adam Rittenberg/ESPN.comNIU assistant Richard McNutt leads a special-teams meeting in preparation for the Orange Bowl.

After lunch, NIU holds its daily special teams meeting. Linebackers coach Kevin Kane begins with the punt team, followed by McNutt with the punt block/coverage team. McNutt notes that FSU has a weak side to its punt shield.

"I need one guy to run through it," he says.

Uremovich then shows a graphic that displays special teams rankings from college football guru Phil Steele. Florida State ranks third nationally, followed by NIU at fourth. "We've gotta win here," he says.

NIU ends up winning the kicking game in the Orange Bowl, pulling off two surprise plays and making far fewer mistakes than Florida State.

Position meetings begin moments later, and for Jackson, it'll be his last with the receivers in DeKalb. A sign on the wall of their meeting room lists three basic criteria: great effort, intensity and aggressiveness. Below is a quote: "We can't all be great players but we can all want to be great players!!!"

Jackson, a receiver for the NFL's Cleveland Browns from 2002-06, goes through the new plays for practice, including the Sabock play.

"Sabock?" several players ask.

"He made the play up," one says. "It didn't work against us."

"Actually, it did."

They review a wide receiver pass, to be thrown by Tommylee Lewis to Jordan Lynch.

"T-Lee can't throw," says senior Perez Ashford, who is quickly reminded that he failed to complete his lone pass attempt of the season.

"It's my last game, and I can't get it," Martel Moore grumbles. "All y'all get to throw the ball except 'Tel."

"You grab it like a milk carton," Angelo Sebastiano jokes.

"There's some haters in this room," Ashford concludes.

The DeKalb Sports and Recreation Center wasn't built to host a football team preparing for a BCS bowl, but NIU, without other options, has conducted pre-bowl practices there for years. It's a dimly lit, square of a building with a field lined for soccer. Advertisements for Los Rancheros Mexican Restaurant and EcoSteam Carpet Cleaners line the walls.

Thad Ward made the three-hour drive from Michigan and attends practice wearing Huskie gear.

NIU starts with special teams and one punt lodges in a net covering the ceiling.

"Start playing the game today!" Carey tells the team.

This would become a theme. If the Huskies were going to upset Florida State, they needed to envision it happening before kickoff in south Florida.

Wednesday, Dec. 26 (Miami)

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Adam Rittenberg/ESPN.comNIU checks in at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami for bowl week.

After reporting to the Yordon Center at 5 a.m. and boarding a 7:45 flight to Miami, NIU gets right to business with its first practice at Barry University, a small catholic school north of the city. The team's first workout at last year's bowl site was sloppy, but the players come in energized and, according to Carey, turn in one of their best practices despite a five-day layoff for the holidays.

At 4 p.m., the team checks into the Fontainebleau Hotel, its palatial bowl week headquarters flanking the Atlantic Ocean in Miami Beach. Pop star Drake is performing poolside on New Year's Eve. Water bottles run $6.50 in the hotel coffee shop.

Next to winning, bowl swag might be the players' favorite part of these trips, and the Huskies meet to collect theirs that night. Each player receives a Tourneau watch and seven credits to be used on a variety of gifts, including a leather recliner, a mountain bike and seemingly every type of headphones on the planet. There are also ladies' items, and some players text their girlfriends and moms for requests. Martel Moore, whose father taught him how to play guitar, secures a "Maestro by Gibson" acoustic for three credits.

The team meets at 9:15 p.m., and Carey tells his players they completed the "first quarter" of the game with a good practice. The "second quarter" is next. It's all about pushing back.

Two Miami-Dade policemen assigned to NIU throughout the week address the players before their first night on South Beach. Sgt. Denis Morales, a 27-year veteran of the force, begins by discussing his love of football, which he grew up playing and now coaches at the youth level.

[+] EnlargeJamaal Bass
Adam Rittenberg/ESPN.comPart of the bowl experience is the gift suite, as linebacker Jamaal Bass holds a Tourneau watch.

"You guys are my new team," Morales says. "If anything happens to any one of you, that's a slap at me. You've got to make it to the field on the [Jan. 1]. There's a lot of hours between now and then. Don't blow all those years you've been playing over one night."

Morales explains the perks and perils of Miami, calling the city a giant salad bowl with some "really special croutons." He tells the players to travel in groups and points out how, in this city, their size won't keep trouble away. Football operations chief Matt Lipman later instructs the players not to wear any NIU apparel when they go out. Florida State fans, after all, are everywhere.

"We're here for you. If I can get my hands on the FSU playbook, I will," Morales jokes as the players cheer.

Carey asks the seniors to come up front. All are wearing Orange Bowl sweats.

"This," Carey says, as the seniors strip off the sweats to reveal the team's new uniforms for the game, "is what we'll be wearing."

The room bursts into celebration.

Thursday, Dec. 27 (Miami)

The staff gathers at 8 a.m. in a conference room bigger than the one at the Yordon Center. Associate athletics trainer Jeff Sisson goes through the injury report, which includes top running back Akeem Daniels (foot). Daniels likely will miss practice, but he's still expected to play. Carey says he received no calls about the players' first night out, although the schedule becomes gradually less structured.

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Adam Rittenberg/ESPN.comRod Carey sits at the head of the table to lead a bowl staff meeting.

"From 6 [p.m.] on, they're free," Carey says. "This is the day I'm nervous about."

As it turns out, NIU has zero player conduct issues on the bowl trip.

Five assistants stay to discuss special teams. An onside kick is definitely on the table, and Uremovich says NIU shouldn't practice it until Friday, when the workout is closed to the media. Kane also will run fake punts Friday.

"My thought is to be as aggressive as we can," Carey says.

It's a good thought, as NIU catches Florida State off guard and gains 35 yards on a fake punt to set up its only first-half score in the game. Following the Huskies' first and only touchdown in the third quarter, Carey calls the surprise onside kick and NIU recovers.

Uremovich, McNutt, Nielsen and Jackson leave the room as the remaining NIU coaches divide up calls to recruits. The hiring of Thad Ward is complete and the paperwork on another new assistant is being processed. Carey will take his time with the other three staff hires.

Uremovich isn't recruiting the same players he did for NIU at NC State -- "really sticking to his integrity," Carey says -- although the Huskie coaches remain cautious. They'll have several Florida-based recruits attend bowl practices, but they decide not to invite one who could be considering NC State. Over breakfast, the coaches tease Uremovich about a Doeren quote in NC State's news release announcing Uremovich's hiring.

"One of the best technicians I've been with from a run blocking and design standpoint!"

At the 9:45 a.m. team meeting, Carey praises the players for avoiding trouble during their first night in South Beach. He reiterates the theme for the day: pushback.

As will be the case at every team meeting this week, several seniors speak to the team about their time at NIU and give advice to younger players. Cornerback Rashaan Melvin says, "I didn't feel old until I came up here."

Linebacker Victor Jacques, a Miami native who has a giant tattoo of the city's skyline on his left arm, talks about how he wanted to get away from the hazards of his hometown -- "Nothing but trouble here" -- and play college ball.

Ryan Nielsen is a former All-Pac-10 defensive tackle at USC with a booming voice that reverberates throughout NIU's defensive line meeting room. After showing clips of how Florida State loves running wide, Nielsen demonstrates the technique and then brings starting defensive ends Alan Baxter and Sean Progar to the front of the room to walk through it.

Nielsen is right about FSU's approach, but Seminoles fullback Lonnie Pryor beats the Huskies around the end for a 60-yard touchdown in the first quarter. The Noles also have success between the tackles and finish with 243 rush yards, although NIU's defense hangs tough.

Nielsen flips quickly through plays from Wednesday's practice, directing every comment at his players. He tells Baxter to set the edge on a run, reminds end George Rainey not to line up so wide, praises tackle Ken Bishop's practice performance and implores the defensive tackles to win inside.

"How sweet would it be," Nielsen concludes, "to hop on the plane with an Orange Bowl trophy bigger than Ken's head?"

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Adam Rittenberg/ESPN.comFormer Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit stops by practice to chat with Carey.

The room bursts into laughter as the 308-pound Bishop shakes his massive noggin.

"You're in the Orange Bowl!" Nielsen continues. "What are you gonna do about it?"

Led by a police escort, NIU's buses reach Barry University shortly after noon. The Huskies have two manicured grass fields at their disposal, quite a change from their typical practice digs.

Bill Cubit, the former Western Michigan coach who has a home in Florida, chats with Carey before practice. As players stretch, a speaker blares Rick Ross rapping, "These haters can't hold me back!" In team drills, the FSU war chant is played on a loop.

"That wasn't as sharp as yesterday, men," Carey says afterward. "We're probably in there at halftime, thinking, 'Aw, [shoot], it's closer than it should be.' It's still a game. You're still right where you want to be."

Five days later, Carey ends up saying the same thing in the halftime locker room.

Friday, Dec. 28, (Miami)

NIU has outscored its opponents 258-117 in the second half this season. Carey didn't see the response he needed Thursday, and in the team meeting he preaches the importance of a fast start today.

The seniors are up next, and Alan Baxter reminisces about how NIU used to be excited for six wins and a bowl appearance; how it went from a solid MAC team to one that made history; and how the chip on the players' shoulder from being overlooked in recruiting separates them from their competition.

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Adam Rittenberg/ESPN.comA view of the Huskies' team goals board for the 2012 season.

"We've made two coaches into millionaires," Baxter says, referring to Minnesota coach Jerry Kill and Doeren, who cashed in after their success at NIU.

Offensive lineman Logan Pegram, a fifth-year senior who fractured his leg in preseason practice, rounds out the speeches. Most of the players in Pegram's recruiting class are gone. His goal was to leave the program in better shape than when he arrived. The juniors must keep it going.

"You hear about becoming the next TCU, the next Boise State," Pegram says. "F--- that. Let's be NIU. Let's be who we are."

It's overcast for practice but the rain stays away. Daniels is still in the walking boot. Several recruits attend the workout along with some local coaches, including Chris Merritt, who coached Victor Jacques in high school and played with Carey at Indiana.

The beats of "The Hard Way," a rap song by former NIU receiver Nathan "NaPalm" Palmer (now with the Indianapolis Colts), fill the air during stretching. "A hungry pack of dogs," NaPalm raps. "Don't let us sense no fear!"

The two fake punts are run midway through practice. NIU goes through the two-minute drill and the defense dominates.

Saturday, Dec. 29 (Miami)

In the staff meeting, Jeff Sisson says Daniels, despite some pain, can practice the next two days, as long as he receives treatment before the workouts.

"He's got to take some reps," Carey says.

Carey tells the staff about an incident that happened the night before in NIU's hospitality room at the Fontainebleau. An NIU athletic administrator got into an argument with a senior Orange Bowl official. Both had been drinking, and things ended with the official saying the bowl never wanted NIU in its game. Multiple NIU staffers were present. Carey may mention the incident to the team. Several coaches are understandably livid, but Carey encourages them to remain courteous to the bowl staff. "Kill 'em with kindness," he says.

Carey wants to practice the two-minute drill again because of the offense's struggles. He also wants every player in the cold tub after the workout, so the staff agrees to end position meetings 15 minutes early. At the team meeting, Carey reminds players they're in the "fourth quarter" of their preparation. Practices will be shorter and lighter (no pads), but details will continue to be stressed.

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Adam Rittenberg/ESPN.comHotel ballrooms can make great spaces for walk-throughs and game prep.

Carey praises the team's mental approach to late-game situations but also mentions NIU's lone loss to Iowa, in which the Huskies blew a 17-12 lead in the closing minutes.

"That was the worst feeling in my life," Carey says. "Everything you do is about the fourth quarter -- the quarter we own."

Unfortunately for the Huskies, FSU owns the fourth quarter in the Orange Bowl, scoring on the very first play and adding another touchdown to secure the win.

The senior speeches begin and receiver Perez Ashford talks about how football was his outlet growing up because of problems at home. Ashford gets emotional when recounting how his teammates have helped him, saying, "I never had that in my life."

Moore delivers a similar message: "I'll never have a bond with a team like this again. After this, it's all about the money."

Joe Tripodi, who will coach the offensive line exclusively after the bowl, tells the group to avoid the head fakes Florida State defenders like to use on their rushes ("Never look in their eyes"). He quizzes players on the Seminoles' blitz schemes.

Although NIU doesn't run the triple option like Georgia Tech, Tripodi and Carey think Florida State could tighten its alignment, as it did against the Yellow Jackets. He turns out to be right, and the Seminoles smother Jordan Lynch between the tackles.

It's breezy and overcast at Barry University. Daniels is back on the field and looks good. The offense sharpens its play and has some fun at the end with a modified fumblerooski pass out of victory formation. Lineman Jared Volk pitches the ball to wideout Da'Ron Brown, who throws to streaking 292-pound lineman Tyler Pitt.

"One more to go," defensive coordinator Jay Niemann says, walking off of the field. "Hay's in the barn."

Carey and 12 players go straight from practice to visit Baptist Children's Hospital in Southwest Miami. They pass out Huskie T-shirts and other items to the young patients and their families, and tell them when the game is being played. Several patients don't speak English. One of them, Faith, comes from Trinidad.

"We play American football," Carey tells her.

The players gather around seven-year-old Jamari, wheeling his fluid bag outside his room. Asked if he's a Florida State fan, Jamari nods as the NIU players smile and shake their heads.

Sunday, Dec. 30 (Miami)

Carey and most of the offensive assistants are at work well before their scheduled 8 a.m. meeting. A large whiteboard in the room lists all the potential plays for the game, broken down into categories like openers, screens, play-action and shots. The play Sabock introduced in DeKalb that bears his name is listed fifth on the list of screens.

Carey pops in an Aspirin. "I'm feeling it a little bit this morning."

He asks about Akeem Daniels. Mike Uremovich says they should rest him since he practiced well Saturday. ESPN analyst Matt Millen, who is broadcasting the game, enters the room and gives Cole a bear hug. The two grew up together in Whitehall, Pa. Cole calls his family to come downstairs to see Millen.

Carey, before leaving for ESPN interviews, tells the staff to brainstorm two-point conversion plays, but NIU wouldn't have the opportunity to use them in the game.

During a break, Sabock tells stories about his 27 years as an NIU assistant. He arrived in 1984 with Lee Corso, who spent his brief NIU head-coaching tenure living in Huskie Stadium in a room that later became Sabock's office. Corso left NIU for the USFL after only nine games. Sabock and the other assistants knew something was up when they arrived at work to see Corso's car, packed to the brim, wheels pointed away from the stadium.

In the staff meeting, Carey tells the assistants about the foundation Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher established to fight Fanconi anemia, a blood disease that affects children, including Fisher's son, Ethan. Carey wants to make a contribution and invites the assistants to do the same, although it isn't mandatory.

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Adam Rittenberg/ESPN.comVictor Jacques and other seniors were carried off after NIU's final practice.

After completing the "four quarters" of bowl practices, Carey wants the team's final workout to be a review. "Play the game in your mind," he says. Carey says he'll play the no-respect card a bit in his pregame speeches, but he's not going to overdo the game's magnitude. The players know it's big.

In the team meeting, Sean Progar says NIU has come a long way from the first bowl he attended as a player, the 2008 Independence Bowl in Shreveport ("The DeKalb of Louisiana"). But he stresses that the program hasn't arrived. Just being happy to be at the Orange Bowl isn't enough.

Tight end Jason Schepler, up next, says he had "zero stars" as a high school recruit but wanted to play in the Big Ten and attended camps at Iowa, Purdue and Illinois. "Every one of them," Schepler says, "said I wasn't good enough."

Schepler walked on at NIU, eventually received a scholarship, worked his way onto the travel squad on special teams and became a starter as a true sophomore. He fought through two ACL tears in the past 18 months and has 60 pancake blocks this season. "It's been a great ride," he says.

Several Lynch-signed pictures of opposing coaches brought from DeKalb have been stuck on the wall of the quarterbacks' meeting room. Cole quickly flips through Saturday's practice tape before getting to cutups of Florida State's defense in the red zone. He tells Lynch to look off the safety before throwing fades.

Cole says Carey is concerned about NIU's run game against Florida State's defensive line, so Lynch must make quick throws. Carey's concern proves prophetic as FSU holds Lynch to 44 rushing yards on 23 carries, 92 yards below his average.

NIU's last practice of the season is also its shortest, basically an extended walkthrough without pads. A group of Carey's relatives from Wisconsin and Minnesota, some wearing Green Bay Packers gear, attend the workout. Keeping with tradition, players wear different jerseys (Lynch, normally No. 6, wears 22).

The Huskies practice their fake punts and an onside kick one final time. At the end of practice, a final tradition is continued: The seniors from each position group are carried off of the field.

Monday, Dec. 31 (Miami)

Before the staff meeting, Uremovich passes Carey the special teams play chart.

"That's punt, kickoff, kickoff return," Uremovich says. "Have a nice day."

Carey, who had to worry about only offense in his previous role, smiles. "This is like Chinese!"

Operations chief Matt Lipman distributes game credentials for the coaches and their wives. Athletic trainer Jeff Sisson reviews the injury report, noting that Daniels might need treatment at halftime but can play. The staff agrees to contribute to Jimbo Fisher's Kidz1stFund.

Carey asks the staff to suggest any items he should address in his pregame speeches. Bob Cole mentions harnessing emotions at the start of the game, playing fast and not dwelling on mistakes. Uremovich talks about end-of-half execution, while Kevin Kane says NIU must maintain its mental focus during a game filled with TV timeouts and the longest halftime of any bowl.

"They're ready," Carey says. "There ain't gonna be no damn Knute Rockne speech tomorrow."

Carey mentions the adjustments made in previous games against Kent State and Western Michigan. "I've never been a part of a better game-day staff," he says. "This is why we kept it together."

They review special teams and the fakes they end up using. The surprise onside kick could come early if the situation is right. If it's a defensive struggle, Uremovich says, the play should stay on the chart. If it's a shootout, Carey will pull the trigger. They're playing to win. In the end, they run the onside kick in the third quarter, even though the defense is holding its ground.

"I'm proud to be associated with everyone in here," Carey says. "This has been fun as hell. Last time together, boys. Let's go have some fun."

Several NIU coaches refer to Florida State star defensive end Bjoern Werner simply as "The German." They've talked a lot about The German in recent weeks. Mike Sabock mentions Werner in his final position meeting, noting how well he uses his hands to shed blocks. Sabock shows a clip of Werner blowing by a Georgia Tech player. "We'll cut [block] a lot better than this," he says. Werner ends up having a quiet game, with two tackles and one pass breakup.

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Adam Rittenberg/ESPN.comThe NIU staff gets its turn to pose for a photo at the Orange Bowl.

That afternoon, 14 police on motorcycles wearing NIU helmets escort four buses to Sun Life Stadium for team photos. Players take pictures on their smart phones walking out to the field. Uremovich, always thinking special teams, checks the wind. Carey emerges from the tunnel munching on a slice of pizza. He looks around the stadium and nods. "Pretty cool."

Florida State arrives for its pictures before NIU has departed. There are a few stares in the tunnel as the teams pass, but no problems. Back at the Fontainebleau, NIU goes through a walkthrough in an empty ballroom. Special teams are first, and Carey randomly tests players on substitutions. The defense and offense split, and Carey calls out the offensive plays and Lynch calls signals, just like they'll do in the game. The offense ends with its beloved receiver pass to an offensive lineman out of victory formation.

"I'm proud of what you've done all year," Carey tells the group. "It's been a privilege to coach you."

Later, he reminds his offensive linemen how they were doubted every step of the way after losing all five starters from 2011. "You've risen to the challenge," he says. "It's time to rise to this one."

NIU's travel squad leaves the Fontainebleau, which is in full New Year's Eve mode, for a quieter hotel near the airport.

In the team meeting, Victor Jacques says the FSU buses parked at the stadium that day had pictures of Werner and several other Seminoles stars. NIU's buses, meanwhile, show the entire team charging out. Carey took notice, too. "There's five guys on their bus," he says. "Ours has a team."

Carey tells the players that they've shown a tightly wound coach like himself that it's possible to be loose while remaining detail-oriented as kickoff approaches. He points to the team goals board and lists all the targets achieved this season. Only one remains: boneyard victories, or wins against teams from BCS automatic-qualifying conferences. NIU got one against Kansas but let the Iowa game slip away.

The Huskies' entire week was built around one final shot.

Tuesday, Jan. 1 (Miami)

In the team chapel session, Uremovich puts a Bear Bryant quote on the screen: "It's not an upset if the so-called underdog knew they were the better team all along." He then shows slides of Boise State's Fiesta Bowl win against Oklahoma, TCU's Rose Bowl win against Wisconsin and the NIU-FSU game with question marks next to the scores.

The final slides show the two team buses (NIU and FSU) from the day before, and a U-boat from World War II. Uremovich says they'll get off the boat together, but the seniors aren't coming back. It's their last time going into battle as a team.

After dinner, Carey addresses the team carrying a giant dog bone. He says they'll run the fake punt in the first half and, if they get the right look, the surprise onside kick.

The lights dim and players watch their pump-up video, which begins with Herbstreit's comments about NIU during the BCS selection show. "They don't deserve to be in the BCS this year," Herbstreit says. The players then watch season highlights set to Trinidad James' "All Gold Everything," the team's unofficial anthem. The video ends with four words: Do What We Do.

Scores of NIU fans greet the team buses at Sun Life Stadium. In a brief pregame meeting, Uremovich tells the offense, "Win the first five minutes." Players kneel and recite the Lord's Prayer.

"There is no tomorrow, right?" Carey says before NIU takes the field. "What did we say? We hit first."

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Adam Rittenberg/ESPN.comNIU's defensive line huddles in the first half of the Orange Bowl.

Florida State lands more punches throughout the game, but the Seminoles can't deliver the knockout blow until the third quarter. FSU outgains NIU 328-110 in the first half and records 10 more first downs.

Wideout Martel Moore is livid at halftime. "We're a powerful-ass offense!" he says. The offensive line has been manhandled by Florida State's front four. "You need to step up!" Carey tells them.

After a lengthy meeting, the offensive staff emerges and tells the players they'll emphasize screens in the second half but take three downfield shots. The surprise onside kick is still in the chamber. "Defense gets a stop and we score," Frisman Jackson tells his receivers, "it's a football game."

"Nothing to panic about," Carey says. "We've been doing this all year. Would you like to have it any other way?"

Carey gets the pushback he talked all week about, as NIU finally reaches the end zone and then recovers the onside kick. But after driving to the Seminoles' 23, Lynch throws an interception near the sideline. Florida State finally pulls away late.

In the closing minutes, FSU fans chant "On your knees," referring to Lynch's comments to the Sporting News about the Seminoles' defense that made headlines throughout the week. Daniels' injured foot finally gives out on a run.

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Adam Rittenberg/ESPN.comPlayers Michael Santacaterina (left) and Martel Moore share a postgame hug.

After the game, Carey tells the team, "I know we all wanted this one. It hurts right now. In time, you'll come back and realize what you accomplished. This is unbelievable. I'm sorry I'm not going to get to coach this group again. This is a special group, and you played your ass off tonight."

Calm with the players, Carey slams his cap upon entering the coaches' locker room, puts one foot on his stool and rubs his head for several minutes. Bob Cole, standing in the locker room, says NIU had two chances and squandered them with turnovers. "But damn they're good," he says of FSU.

As the players say their goodbyes, Jackson approaches athletic director Jeff Compher. "Sorry we didn't get it," Jackson says, shaking Compher's hand.

"Hey, you got us here," Compher replies.

"Next time, next time."

The giant dog bone Carey wielded at the team meeting has been tossed in an equipment bin. Carey and Lynch leave the locker room together. Recruiting and staffing decisions await Carey. For Lynch, winter workouts aren't far off.

Their BCS journey is over.