December 18, 2010/5:30 pm Eastern
Boise, ID – Bronco Stadium
Northern Illinois Huskies
Fresno State Bulldogs
Northern Illinois made their way all the way to the MAC title game, losing a heartbreaker to the Miami Redhawks and missing out on their second MAC conference championship in school history (the first coming in their first stint in the league way back in 1983). Fresno State opened the season with a resounding win over Cincinnati that became quieter as the weeks went on and the Bearcats slipped down the Big East standings. The Smurf Turf in Boise, Idaho will serve as the backdrop for the battle between these two mid-major powers on opening day of bowl season, as the Huskies look to rebound from their first loss since September without their head coach (Jerry Kill having taken over at Minnesota)… and Fresno State hopes that a return to Boise is kinder than their past two bowl trips to Albuquerque.
- Northern Illinois: The Huskies have one of the nation’s most explosive rushing attacks, and it is all thanks to RB Chad Spann. The senior tailback had his second straight 1000-yard season, scoring 20 touchdowns among his 1293 yards gained on the ground. Averaging just under 100 yards a game (99.56 YPG/20th nationally), Spann is tied for twelfth in the country in scoring average per game. Miami bottled up the senior in the MAC championship, the first time since the opener at Iowa State that Spann had been held scoreless in a game. Whoever serves as the interim head coach will need Spann to have a big game for NIU to have a shot at victory.
- Fresno State: The Bulldogs have quietly had one of the most disruptive defensive lines in the country, and it is largely thanks to the work of senior DE Chris Carter and junior DT Logan Harrell. Carter, a converted LB, comes off the edge and gets quick pressure on quarterbacks (11.0 sacks, 5 hurries) and everyone else in the backfield (16.5 TFL, 4 forced fumbles). Harrell compliments him in the middle, soaking up double teams and yet ranking alongside his linemate amongst the top ten sack specialists in college football (10.5 sacks, 14.5 TFL, 1 forced fumble). These two could make NIU QB Chandler Harnish’s life tough all into the Idaho night.
KEY POSITIONAL BATTLE
We’ve already talked some about Carter, Harrell and the rest of the Fresno State D-line and what they bring to the table. As a unit they rank sixth in the nation in sacks and 21st overall in tackles for loss. For a Northern Illinois O-line that has opened huge holes for Spann and the rest of its runners and is 14th overall with just one sack per game allowed, this will be the best test the Huskies have faced since their non-conference slate of Iowa State, Illinois and Minnesota. This will be a true battle of strength versus strength. If the Bulldogs get into the backfield consistently, they’ll force Harnish to try to win the game for NIU exclusively with his arm. If Northern Illinois gets the momentum in the trenches, Fresno State is prone to giving up big yardage in the second and third levels.
TALE OF THE TAPE
Turnovers: Perhaps nothing separates the two teams in the Humanitarian Bowl from one another than how well each protects the football on offense and forces turnovers on defense. Northern Illinois’ success this season was largely built on an offense that is among the best in the country at protecting the pigskin, giving up just 14 turnovers in their 13 games. NIU’s defense forced ten more turnovers than the offense gave up, good enough for 18th in the country in turnover margin. Fresno State was almost a mirror image, coughing the ball up 23 times and getting it back from the opposition just 13 times. If the Bulldogs can’t protect the ball, it won’t matter who is coaching Northern Illinois — more than one turnover in the hole and Fresno State will put themselves at risk of coughing up the game.
If Northern Illinois’ season of success had been just a slight bit less successful, they would likely have had their head coach heading into their bowl game. And if Kill were working the sidelines, NIU would garner a lot more confidence entering this matchup with Fresno State. But having already lost their shot at a conference championship and subsequently their leader, will the Huskies already be in the process of packing in their season? Pat Hill has consistently been a coach who takes on all comers and battle-tests his players all season long. His presence will make the difference in this contest, as the Bulldogs fight to avoid their third consecutive bowl defeat. Having forfeited fourth-quarter leads each of the past two years in the New Mexico Bowl, Hill will make sure his guys play a full 60-minute game this time around and Fresno State will win their first bowl since beating Georgia Tech in 2007 on this same field.
PREDICTION: Fresno State 31, Northern Illinois 28