COLUMBUS, Ohio — Northern Illinois has been to the Orange Bowl. It's beaten Big Ten teams. But perhaps praise from the No. 1 team in the country is as good an example of how far this program has come as any.
"That's a heck of a football team," Ohio State linebacker Darron Lee said after the Buckeyes narrowly defeated the Huskies, 20-13, on Saturday at Ohio Stadium. "That actually felt more like a Big Ten team, to be honest with you. ... We tip our hat to them, they played a heck of a ballgame on both sides of the ball. Their quarterback made plays for them, a couple other guys made plays for them.
"They came in here ready to play, and that's a heck of a football team."
Northern Illinois fans are no strangers to comparing their team to those in the Big Ten, frequently pointing out the high win totals that have at times contrasted with those of the Land of Lincoln's resident Big Ten teams, Illinois and Northwestern.
But Ohio State associating NIU with the style of play typically found in the Big Ten — one of toughness — might earn even more pride.
“They were really physical running the ball. They had great offensive linemen that were pushing us back a little bit," cornerback Eli Apple said. "You’ve just got to give credit to them, they were a great team all around.”
The Huskies themselves didn't take too much pride in leaving Columbus with a loss, even if it was just a seven-point defeat against the country's top team, the defending champs.
"We wanted to run our offense, which we did for the most part," NIU head coach Rod Carey said. "We tried to make people defend the field vertically and horizontally, and I think for the most part we accomplished that as far as X's and O's wise. Execution wise, no, we didn't do that enough."
Northern struggled on offense against a tremendous Ohio State defense, amassing just 190 total yards and only 80 through the air. But the Huskies took advantage of some poor play by the Buckeyes' offense, on the receiving side of five turnovers. NIU led after the first quarter, was tied with Ohio State at the half and had multiple opportunities to tie the game or re-take the lead in the fourth quarter.
The almosts, though, are not something NIU wants to be happy about.
In the eyes of many, however, this will go down as a real "quality" loss. If NIU manages to keep winning, folks looking at the results and seeing just a touchdown loss to Ohio State could get the Huskies involved in some impressive postseason conversations.
Earning the respect of those who make those decisions will come. Earning the respect of Saturday's opponent has already happened.
“They’re very well coached. They’ve got good players, but they’re very well coached," Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. "You can look out there, you know they’ve got a scheme, they’re going to stick to their scheme, they’re going to do what it is that they do, they’re not going to change on a whim. And that’s when you know that you’ve got a heck of a program. And that’s what they showed today."