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Boca Raton Bowl Preview: Northern Illinois Huskies vs. Marshall Thundering Herd

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The Huskies and Thundering Herd square off in the first ever Boca Raton Bowl.

Drew Hare and the Huskies look to beat Marshall this Tuesday
Drew Hare and the Huskies look to beat Marshall this Tuesday
Leon Halip/Getty Images

The Northern Illinois Huskies (11-2, 8-1 MAC) will face the Marshall Thundering Herd (12-1, 8-1 C-USA) in the inaugural Boca Raton Bowl this Tuesday night. The bowl is the only non-New Years Six bowl that has two conference champions facing off in a battle for G5 supremacy.

The Huskies, who are 4-5 in bowl games, are competing in their seventh straight bowl game and will look to end a two year losing streak in bowls since beating Arkansas State in the 2011 GoDaddy.com Bowl. Marshall is 8-3 all time in bowl games and have won their last three games, including last year's Military Bowl over Maryland.

The MAC is very familiar with the Herd, as they were in the conference from 1953-69 and again from 1997-2005. But despite that, this will only be the eighth meeting between the teams, with the Huskies holding a slight 4-3 edge in the series. Marshall has won the previous two games but they haven't met on the gridiron since 2001.

Marshall started this season off strong, blowing out its first ten opponents (including two MAC schools) by a combined score of 471-163, winning by an average of 31 points, and scoring 40+ points in all but one game. But in their final three games, they have struggled - each has been within five points and Marshall has been held to under 28 points twice - which is a huge surprise since they have one of the best offenses in the nation.

The Herd are averaging 563.4 total yards per game (second in the FBS), gaining 287.8 passing yards (18th in the nation) and 275.6 rushing yards per game (seventh in the FBS). All those yards usually mean lots of points, which is why it's no surprise Marshall is averaging over 45 points per game, which is fifth in the country.

Marshall is led by senior quarterback Rakeem Cato, who has tallied over 4000 total yards and 43 TDs for the Herd this season. Cato has passed for 3622 yards and 37 touchdowns this year and while he's not an avid runner, he has added 457 yards and six more scores on the ground. Only two players in the NCAA have more passing TDs than Cato. When he throws, his main target is Tommy Shuler, a 5'7 senior that leads the team in receptions (74), receiving yards (953) and touchdowns (8).

But the Herd aren't just a one-horse show. They also have the sixth leading rusher in the country in their junior running back Devon Johnson. Johnson has rushed for 1636 and 16 touchdowns on just 191 carries (an average of 8.6 yards per rush!) but a knee injury has had him sidelined for the previous two games. And as of December 18th, he is listed as questionable for the game. But Huskie fans shouldn't breath a sigh of relief just yet, since his backup Steward Butler has done a fine job filling in for him. Butler has 781 yards and seven scores (250 yards and two TDs in the last two games alone).

The Huskies love to run the ball too though, and have their own duo of backs that have rushed for over 1700 yards. NIU ranks 14th in the FBS in rushing, with 253 yards per game, and are led by senior running back Cameron Stingily. He leads NIU with 895 yards and 13 touchdowns and is just 105 yards shy of back-to-back 1000 yard seasons. Joel Bouagnon, his backup, has added another 573 yards and five scores on the ground. But it's the Huskies quarterback that is second on the team in rushing yards.

Sophomore QB Drew Hare has rushed for 850 yards and eight scores. But not only can he run, he can throw. He has completed 60% of his passes, thrown for 2097 yards and 17 touchdowns all while just throwing two interceptions. His favorite target all season long as been Da'Ron Brown. Brown, much like Shuler, leads the team in receiving yards (1002), receptions (64), and TDs (6). The next closest player is Juwan Brescacin, who only has 405 yards and five scores.

As good as Marshall's offense has been, their defense has been just average. The Huskies and Herd are quite even in terms of defense. Marshall allows just 20.8 points per game while NIU gives up 23.6 points per contest. The Huskies have fared relatively well against the run, allowing just 158 yards per game, but have played especially well of late, allowing just 2.8 yards per carry in the last two games. Marshall allows 157 yards per game. But the Herd's secondary has done a better job than the Huskies this season, as they are giving up only 195 yards through the air. Conversely, NIU is allowing nearly 30 more yards per game, at 224.5 yards. But there is one category that NIU has a huge lead in.

The Huskies are ninth in the nation with a turnover margin of +12, as they have forced 24 turnovers (10 fumbles, 14 interceptions) while only turning the ball over 12 times themselves (nine fumbles, three picks). Marshall has a turnover margin of -2, which has them ranked 73rd in the FBS. The Herd's defense has forced 22 turnovers (nine fumbles, 13 INTs) while their offense has turned the ball over 24 times, on 13 picks and 11 lost fumbles.

Marshall has the better offense, there is no doubting that - they are favored by ten for a reason. But this game will most likely be closer than people think. Marshall fans will disagree here, but, from top to bottom, the MAC and C-USA are pretty comparable. But the Huskies have had the harder non-conference schedule, going down to play the SEC and notching another win against the B1G. While the schedule itself has nothing to do with the game, it certainly favors the Huskies, as they are better prepared to face a team of this caliber.

Marshall will need to find a way to stop the running game from NIU and force Hare to throw if they want to win. Conversely, NIU needs to find a way to keep Cato in check and trust their rushing defense, which has been better than their pass defense all season long. If the Huskies D can force some turnovers, they'll have a real chance to win.

The Boca Raton Bowl might not be very prestigious but, despite what Marshall fans may think about playing in it, they have put together a great bowl match up between two of the best G5 teams in the country. This is definitely one of the best bowl match ups this year and it'll be a great game to watch.

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You can catch the game on ESPN or the WatchESPN app on Tuesday, December 23 at 6 p.m. EST (5 p.m. CST).