Northern Illinois came into the MAC Championship Game with thoughts of busting the BCS for the second straight season. Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson had other plans.
Johnson torched the Huskies defense for five touchdowns and the Bowling Green secondary flummoxed Jordan Lynch, as the Falcons pulled off a 47-27 victory over No. 14 Northern Illinois on Friday to take the 2013 MAC championship.
It was a game that meant far more to the Huskies than Falcons, and Bowling Green came out with the looseness of a team with nothing to lose. Johnson, a sophomore in his first season starting, threw for a career-high 393 yards and found consistent success against what was the top defense in the Mid-American Conference.
Johnson threw four of his touchdowns in the first half, pushing the Huskies to a 31-13 halftime deficit that left the crowd at Ford Field in a state of shock. In total, five different Bowling Green receivers caught a touchdown pass, highlighted by big nights from wide receiver Ronnie Moore and tight end Alex Bayer.
Moore, a 5'9" freshman, finished with four catches for 145 yards, including a 36-yard score that gave Bowling Green a 17-7 lead with 2:32 remaining in the first quarter. Bayer's touchdown from 12 yards out finalized the first-half blowout, with the senior tight end on his way to a seven-catch, 124-yard outing.
In all, Northern Illinois' defensive woes paved the way for a heartbreaking night for Lynch, the Huskies' Heisman-contending quarterback. While Lynch broke the FBS record for quarterback rushing yards in a season on Friday, it came in a contest where he struggled to create big plays on the ground and had to throw the ball more than he has since the season opener.
The result wasn't pretty.
Lynch completed just 21 of 40 passes for 219 yards and a touchdown along with two critical interceptions. A Lynch pick near the end of the first half allowed Bowling Green directly led to Bayer's score to give the Falcons a three-touchdown lead. His second interception came at an even worse time. With the Huskies still in the game down 34-20 at the beginning of the fourth quarter, Lynch threw a pass into coverage and was picked off by Aaron Foster, who returned the ball to the Northern Illinois 20-yard line.
Johnson found Travis Greene for a six-yard touchdown pass three plays later, putting the Falcons up 40-20 with 10:17 remaining. Greene was a late-game bloomer for Bowling Green, finishing with two touchdowns and 156 total yards.
The result was the first MAC title for Bowling Green in more than two decades. It was a banner effort for Dave Clawson, the coach who took over the program in 2009. Linked to the Wake Forest job (per ESPN's Brett McMurphy), Clawson's team put together a banner effort in what might be its coach's last game at the school.
On the other side, it was a crushing end for Northern Illinois, which seemed destined to play in January. The Huskies had captured the conference championship each of the past two seasons, claiming victory from the jaws of defeat each time. In 2012, they were awarded with a trip to the Orange Bowl.
In 2013, their loss snaps a 25-game conference win streak and will almost certainly hold them out of the BCS bowl picture. What remains of the Northern Illinois season is merely waiting to see if Lynch gets a Heisman ceremony invite. The senior signal-caller finished with 133 rushing yards and scored a garbage-time touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
But with some already questioning the legitimacy of his candidacy, Lynch's individual season may end with the same disappointment as his team's.
Matt Johnson (QB, Bowling Green): A
Johnson sure picked an opportune time to have the best night of his life. The sophomore signal-caller came into Friday night as a pleasant surprise for the Falcons, but someone who had his fair share of inconsistency this season. Last week against Buffalo Johnson completed only 11-of-26 passes, breaking a streak of three straight multi-touchdown passing games.
This week Johnson looked far more like a leader worthy of a conference title. Finding wide-open passing lanes up the seam, Johnson connected on huge strikes down the field, accurately firing balls and putting his receivers in a position to run after the catch.
Things didn't work quite as smoothly in the third quarter, but Northern Illinois struggled so mightily that any mistakes made by Johnson were obscured. He got away with a floating prayer on third down on the Falcons' opening drive of the second half, a possession that could have taken some air out of the Northern Illinois sails had Tyler Tate converted the short field goal.
Nonetheless, Johnson recovered and played more than well enough to win when it counted.
Jordan Lynch (QB, Northern Illinois): C-
Perhaps no player in the nation has more pressure to single-handedly win games for his team than Lynch. The Heisman candidate passes or keeps it himself a majority of the time and represents an overwhelmingly high percentage of the team's offense.
Friday night was one of the few times we've really seen Lynch sweat. By driving up and down the field, Bowling Green forced Lynch into a one-dimensional passing quarterback. The results unsurprisingly went poorly, with Lynch barely completing half his passes and nearly getting picked off more times than his two interceptions would indicate.
It's no surprise that Lynch and the Huskies looked far better to start the second half, when the coaching staff recommitted to the run. Lynch and Co. were on a roll for their first two drives, but again game situations forced them out of their comfort zone.
Now, with the BCS bowl ruined, we'll have to see whether Lynch is even invited to the Heisman presentation. Setting a FBS record for quarterback rushing yards is impressive, but Lynch needed to come through here to have a chance at winning.
He didn't, and now folks will have a much easier time poking holes in his resume.
Alex Bayer (TE, Bowling Green): A
Apparently, playing Northern Illinois turns Bayer into Jason Witten. After going a full four seasons without going over the 100-yard mark, the senior tight end found himself jogging alone in the second level of Northern Illinois' secondary throughout the night.
Bayer was an especially big factor in the second half, working both as a safety valve and big-play threat for Johnson. His 44-yard reception was remarkable, with the lumbering tight end somehow outrunning Huskies tacklers taking bad angles.
For someone who plays a position too often ignored, Bayer deserves plenty of recognition.
Northern Illinois Secondary: F
You can't pick just one. From top to bottom, the Huskies had inexcusable breakdowns that put their offense in a hole and completely changed the game's outlook. Give Johnson credit where it's due, but there's a reason this is the first time he ever threw more than three scores.
It's going to be a long film day tomorrow in DeKalb.
As the top team in the MAC, Bowling Green will likely play in the GoDaddy Bowl. Northern Illinois is likely headed to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, barring a surprise from the BCS rankings.
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