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Huskie In The Running: Northern Illinois’ Heisman Hopeful, Jordan Lynch

With that pesky presidential campaign out of the way, all eyes can focus now on the vote that really matters: the Heisman Trophy award.

Johnny Manziel, the freshman from Texas A&M, is the favorite to take home the trophy on Dec. 8, but that hasn’t stopped the marketing department at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb from launching a dark-horse campaign for its own stellar quarterback, Jordan Lynch.

While Lynch has almost no chance of winning, he has quietly put together one of the greatest seasons in college football history. In making its case, NIU hopes to call attention to what may be the most successful college football program in the state this year and one of the most exciting players to come along in years.

They’re also laying the groundwork for another push in 2013.

Lynch, in a telephone interview this week, said he was flattered to be mentioned as a Heisman candidate, but he’s too competitive to be overly excited by something he probably won’t win. If he ever gets to the point that he’s seriously in the running, he said, “I want to go there and win…. I don’t want to just come in second.”

Campaigning for the Heisman is a challenge in the Mid-American Conference, which seldom enters the consciousness of even the most devoted college football fans. But on rare occasions a player at a small college is so dominant he can’t be ignored. Enter Lynch, a 6-foot, 216-pound redshirt junior who has thrown for 2,750 yards while completing 63.6% of his passes and tossing 23 touchdowns to just four interceptions. He’s also rushed for 1,611 yards and scored 16 touchdowns on the ground.

NIU, 11-1, will play Kent State for the MAC championship on Friday, with the winner possibly earning a BCS bowl bid. The Huskies are ranked 21st in the BCS standings, 18th in the USA Today Coaches Poll, and 19th in the AP Poll, and if they were to finish in the Top 16 – ahead of an automatic-qualifying conference champion—they would likely earn a spot in the Orange Bowl.

If Lynch were to add another big performance on Friday, his Heisman shot would be stronger but still slim.

“(Lynch) is putting up incredible numbers. They’re really unassailable numbers,” said Chris Huston, the CBSsports.com blogger and Heisman pundit (he goes by @HeismanPundit on Twitter) in a telephone interview. “Very impressive player, certainly on par production-wise with anything Johnny Manziel has done. I’d say they’re pretty close, numbers-wise.”

But he still picks Manziel in his straw poll, which has successfully picked the last four winners. Lynch did recently crack Huston’s Top Ten for the first time all year, though, pulling into a tie for seventh.

On the season, Lynch has produced 4,361 yards of total offense, the second-highest total in college football (behind Manziel.) A lot of those yards and scores were of the electrifying variety, and that’s what prompted the athletic department to launch its Heisman campaign.

“I think we had just been coming off of a nice run and his performances had been building,” said associate athletic director Donna Turner about what motivated the “Jordan Lynch for 6” campaign, which launched in October.

Roughly two weeks after Northern Illinois began its campaign, Lynch had his first real opportunity to influence voters with a national audience. The Huskies hosted the Toledo Rockets under the lights in what amounted to the MAC West championship game on a Wednesday night ESPN 2 broadcast.

Lynch exploded for 569 yards of total offense (407 passing and 162 rushing), becoming the first player in Division-I history to throw for more than 400 yards and run for an additional 150 in the same game. The Huskies went on to win, clinching a berth in the MAC Championship Game against Kent State. And the team was excited:

“We knew that how he played Wednesday night would have a big effect on what our next steps were going forward,” Turner said.

Thus far, campaigning has been almost exclusively digital. The school launched JordanLynchFor6.com, an extension of the official athletics department website. A corresponding Facebook page racked up more than 2,000 likes. The football media relations staff made a series of highlight videos—some of them parodies of political ads—touting Lynch.

Turner participated in her first Heisman campaign while working in the athletic department at Florida State, when Seminole star Charlie Ward won the award in 1993. “It’s a lot different than in 1993,” she said. “With the advent of social media and YouTube and the way that you can reach people in so many different ways, everything you do is not just out there for the media and the voters, it’s out there for everyone in the public.

The size of the school also makes a difference. NIU doesn’t have to win to gain from the campaign. “It’s not like if we don’t win the Heisman it’s not been worth anything,” Turner said. “It’s definitely getting our name out there.”

The biggest surprise may be that Lynch finds himself in this position in the first place.

Playing under legendary head coach Frank Lenti at Mount Carmel High School in Chicago, Lynch started as a running back, but Lenti decided that leadership skills and athleticism made him a perfect fit at quarterback in the triple-option offense.

“We thought he had the character to become a quarterback here at Mount Carmel, and we’ve had some pretty good ones,” Lenti said, referring to players like five-time Pro Bowler Donovan McNabb. “He just kind of developed as a freshman, and we put him on the varsity as a backup quarterback as a sophomore so we could get him ready to be the starter as a junior and senior.”

Lynch flourished in the triple-option, totaling more than 2,300 yards passing and 1,300 yards rushing while scoring a combined 55 touchdowns in two seasons as a Mount Carmel starter. However, viewed as the product of an archaic system, Lynch wasn’t getting any looks from colleges to play quarterback at the Division-I level. That’s why Lenti reached out to former NIU head coach Jerry Kill, a longtime friend.

“I think people were looking for a different type, or a different style, of quarterback. Some of them wanted a guy who was 6-3, 6-4, the classic drop-back passer, and that’s not who Jordan Lynch is,” Lenti said. “Coach Kill asked me, ‘Why isn’t this guy being recruited by the Big Ten?’ And I said, ‘Coach, you’d have to ask them.’”

Ultimately, Kill extended Lynch the opportunity to play quarterback at Northern Illinois, and Lynch accepted the challenge.

However, making it to DeKalb was only part of the battle for Lynch. Upon arrival at Northern Illinois, he found himself behind Chandler Harnish, a starter who would go on to shatter 30 school records and finish his career with the third highest total offense output in MAC history behind Byron Leftwich of Marshall and Dan LeFevour of Central Michigan.

For three years (a redshirt year and two lettered years), Lynch watched as Harnish took the majority of the snaps. As a redshirt freshman, Lynch averaged 11.7 yards per carry on 31 rushing attempts. Against Buffalo he scored on a 90-yard touchdown run, and then against Eastern Michigan he carried the ball twice for 142 yards and two scores, 81 and 61 yard touchdown runs, respectively.

The following season, after Kill left for Minnesota and was replaced by Dave Doeren, he had a 10-carry, 113-yard performance against Western Michigan, further cementing himself as the heir apparent to Harnish. However, in two years, Lynch threw just 26 passes.

The concern with Lynch replacing Harnish certainly didn’t have anything to do with his ability as a runner, but whether or not he could beat defenses consistently throwing from the pocket. “Everyone knew Lynch was talented. Doeren mentioned that he wasn’t worried about him during the preseason,” DeKalb Daily Chronicle NIU beat writer Steve Nitz said. “The guy’s running ability is just insane, but he can throw too.”

Despite Doeren’s relative comfort with the kid from Chicago’s Mount Greenwood neighborhood running his offense, nobody expected this level of production, especially considering that he was replacing the most productive quarterback in school history. Not only did Lynch fill Harnish’s shoes, he busted out of their seams—so much so that Doeren sent this email to Heisman voters this week, making his QB’s case for the award.

Lynch, interviewed after practice Tuesday night, said he hadn’t read the coach’s letter. When part of it was read to him, he said: “It definitely shows that he has a great deal of respect (for me),” Lynch said. “He trusts me in running his offense and he knows that when the lights are on, this Heisman campaign won’t get to me.”

What does it take for an athlete from a non-automatic qualifying school to seriously contend for the Heisman? Media attention, for one thing.

“It’s really a tough haul for a non-AQ team,” Huston said. “You see places like Boise State, who were able to send Kellen Moore, but that was because they were flirting with the national title.”

“It takes time to build up a resume to be considered for awards like the Heisman,” said ESPN national college football writer Travis Haney in an email. “Case Keenum eventually got to that point, where he was at least in the conversation, but it took years of piling up numbers to get there,”

Both Haney and Huston are Heisman voters, and their sentiments seem to widely reflect that of the electorate (926—and counting—members of the media and past winners)—namely, that Lynch had a terrific season but not a Heisman season. In addition to his relative inexperience, he was hurt by NIU’s season-opening loss to Iowa at Soldier Field. Lynch gashed the Hawkeyes for 119 yards on the ground that day, including a 73-yard scoring run, but he was rattled by wet, blustery conditions and the physically stronger Iowa defense (he completed just 6 of 16 pass attempts for 54 yards in an 18-17 loss.)

Lynch and NIU are more focused on getting to a bowl game. The Heisman is not only unlikely but out of their hands. At least for 2012.

“He’s a nice fringe candidate with great numbers, but nothing more,” Haney continued in the email. “Who’s to say next year, though, that Manziel and (USC wide receiver Marquise Lee’s) numbers—for example—don’t drop off and allow others, like Lynch, into the race? If he can replicate at all what he’s done this year, he might enter the discussion in 2013 as a senior.”

Huston agreed.

“I think he needs to do the ridiculous numbers thing (again), have his team go undefeated, and beat all those AQ teams to have a chance to get to New York. I think it’s still a longshot because voters always look towards the players from bigger schools first, and the only opening he has is if some of those players didn’t perform up to expectation and opened the door for him,” he said. “He’s got (two) more games to get (250) passing yards and (389) rushing yards, which is certainly within reach. I think if he were to have – you know, a 3,000/2,000 yard season (the first in history) would be one of the best seasons, statistically, in the history of college football, and that’s a great thing to use going into senior year.”

These last two games may just be an extended audition for 2013 in the eyes of Heisman voters, but Lynch and the Huskies probably aren’t projecting yet. Not with an outside chance at a BCS bid on the line with a victory on Friday at Ford Field. If there’s a championship on the line, Lynch said he wants the ball. That’s what he’s focusing on now.

“Fourth and two or ball on the inch-yard line, of course I want it,” he said. “If they’re gonna stack the box and there is some matchup anywhere else, we’re gonna take advantage of it, but if everything is even—definitely—I want the ball.”

STORY ART: Photos courtesy Northern Illinois University.

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