Now, Northern Illinois' senior quarterback has the spotlight on each step. The Huskies are 3-0 and Lynch is off to another stellar start, posting over 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns. The highlight of his young season was a late touchdown pass to secure a road win against Iowa.
Lynch is looking to lead Northern Illinois to its second road win against a Big Ten foe—something no MAC team has ever accomplished in a regular season—when it faces Purdue. In West Lafayette, the focus is on containing the Huskies' talented quarterback.
"You don't stop him, you slow him down," said Purdue coach Darrell Hazell. "He's a great leader. … He's a fierce competitor. You talk about guys that you want in the foxhole with you—he's the guy you want in the foxhole. He's that type of guy you want on your football team."
This week, the Boilermakers went deep into film study, trying to figure out how to keep Lynch in check. The key is to stay smart.
"Just stay aware of our assignments," senior defensive end Greg Latta said. "Be disciplined, don't get out of our rush lanes, don't start running at the play too early—you've got to be disciplined if he cuts back."
Added senior cornerback Ricardo Allen: "I don't think you really know where to stop him, because he's going to make his plays. But you can try to contain him. He's a really good quarterback, he can run, he can pass, he's a really big body, he controls the offense and he makes great decisions. You've got to come out there and make him think."
Purdue does have plenty of familiarity with its opponent. Hazell, along with several of his current assistants, faced the Huskies in last year's MAC title game while with Kent State. A double-overtime thriller ended with a Northern Illinois and Lynch posting four touchdowns. The film from that game is staying in its case.
But the Boilermakers do have a good game plan in their pocket. Defensive coordinator Greg Hudson coached a Florida State defense that shut Lynch down in the Orange Bowl. The quarterback averaged 1.9 yards per carry and completed 15 of 41 passes in a 31-10 loss.
Hudson feels his Purdue defense can have the same success as the Seminoles did. But they've got to stay true to the plan.
"When that ball is snapped, we've got to play fast," Hudson said. "We can do that here, but our guys have to execute the plan as fast as they can, and we've got to take our shot at tackling."
The tackling didn't come easy for the Boilermakers in their crushing loss to Wisconsin. They missed 22 tackles, as Hazell counted, while the Badgers racked up 338 yards on the ground. In practice this week, the focus was on—as you can guess—wrapping up.
Lynch will provide a test for Purdue's tacklers, as they try to take down the quarterback in a fullback's body.
"He's just so tough when he runs," Hazell said. "He's going to run the ball 20 times, 25 times on Saturday. We're going to have to do a good job of tackling him, because he's a very strong guy and he breaks a lot of tackles."
There was once a time where Lynch's name was widely unknown. But Northern Illinois' quarterback is one of college football's best. The Boilermakers know it well.
"He's special," Hudson said. "He's the real deal. The way he plays the game and runs around, he should get some Heisman votes."