Northern Illinois receiver and Chicago native Da'Ron Brown has seven… (Scott Walstrom / NIU Media…)
They are the best college football team in the area that nobody is talking about, and Northern Illinois wide receiver Da'Ron Brown says he and his teammates are fine with that.
"We don't try to listen to outside noise," the 22-year-old redshirt junior said. "We're self-motivated. What motivates us is being the best we can be as a team."
Northwestern bills itself as Chicago's team, and you can't go more than a block in the city without stumbling into an Illinois bar or some die-hard Notre Dame fan who may or may not be able to point out South Bend on a map.
But for the second year in a row, the dominant local program reigns about an hour west of the city on Interstate 88 in DeKalb. If the 15th-ranked Huskies (9-0) win out, they likely will head to their second consecutive BCS bowl game.
"It's gonna take awhile for everyone to get used to hearing Northern's name," defensive lineman Perez Ford said.
Chances are if you've heard anything about the Huskies, it's been about star quarterback Jordan Lynch, the team's Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback.
But much like another famous Jordan in Chicago before him, Lynch can't do it all by himself.
So who are the guys in his supporting cast?
THE LOCAL KID
Jordan Lynch gets the headlines, but Da'Ron Brown has helped him put up some of his gaudiest numbers.
The Morgan Park product is enjoying a breakout campaign, catching seven of Lynch's 19 touchdown passes and setting career highs in every major statistical category.
The junior said success comes from being on the same page as his quarterback.
"Preparation in practice," he said. "It's just becoming confident in each other and letting each other know that each other is going to do each other's job."
Now in his fourth year with the Huskies, Brown has seen the program go from mere conference power to a force to be reckoned with nationally.
So what's changed?
"What happened is we always had a family atmosphere around the team and now everybody's buying in with the coaches and the players," he said. "They're all coming together and we're closer as a family. That's how I've seen it progress."
Brown also has noticed a change in the way the program is perceived back at home and with potential recruits.
"People are seeing a successful environment and people want to be part of success," he said. "The more success we have, the better we look to other individuals."
Brown and his teammates are fully aware that another BCS bowl game could await should they win out. But if there's anything they learned from last season's run to the Orange Bowl, it's to focus on tomorrow, not two months from now.
"We learned that just focusing on ourselves and becoming better for ourselves is the best way to go," he said. "We're not focusing on the BCS bowl game right now. We're focusing on the next game, the next opponent."
THE UP AND COMER
If Perez Ford and his fellow defensive linemen seem like a bunch of overgrown children horsing around in the backyard while out on the field, that's because, well, they are.
"We actually pride ourselves on being laid back, holding our composure, not overthinking, just being like kids playing backyard football," he said. "We just want to go out there and play."
Offense sells tickets and makes the highlight reels, but the Huskies' defense has kept them in every game this season.
Ford said that's because while you're watching a football game, he and his linemates are actually playing a game within the game.
"We talk a lot of trash to each other and that's what keeps us motivated," the 19-year-old sophomore said. "All you hear all game is your teammate who is lining up next to you telling you I'm gonna race you to the quarterback, I'm gonna get this sack before you. You don't wanna be outshined by your teammate so you go out there and you try your hardest."
It's a game the defensive end is dominating. The Romeoville product leads the team in sacks (3.5) and tackles for loss (six).
And while Ford stresses a team-first mentality, there is some individual glory in those numbers.
"We keep tally of who had the most sacks at the end of the year, who had the most TFLs, who makes the most big plays, big hits," he said. "Our D-line coach actually has a point system set up for things like that and we take pride in who gets the most points at the end of the year. In our D-line room, we get a plaque and we put your name on the plaque and it stays up on the wall all year round."
THE FLORIDA KID
When Lauderhill, Fla., native Ken Bishop told his friends and family he was going to Northern Illinois to play football, there were a lot of questions.
"The first thing they asked was 'where is that?'" the 23-year-old said. "They asked about the team because they weren't really familiar with it."
That's something that changed following the team's run to the Orange Bowl last season. Now, the conversations Bishop has when he goes home are a lot different.
"A lot more love, a lot more respect," he said. "People know about us now."