Over the past six seasons a lot of comparisons have been made between the Northern Illinois Huskies (8-5, 6-3 MAC) and the Boise State Broncos (8-4, 5-3 Mountain West) but the teams have never met on the gridiron. Until now.
The Poinsettia Bowl, which can be seen Wednesday, December 23rd at 4:30 p.m. EST (3:30 CST) on ESPN, will feature the two winningest G5 teams in the past ten years. This will be NIU's third appearance in the Poinsettia Bowl and Boise State's second. Neither team has won the game. NIU lost to TCU in 2006 and to Utah State in 2013, while the Broncos also fell to TCU in the 2008 game.
These two teams have incredibly similar credentials coming into this game. Since the beginning of the 2010 season the Huskies have a 65-18 record (tied for the fifth most wins in the NCAA) while Boise State has gone 63-15 (eighth most). Both previously busted the BCS (Boise in 2007 and 2010; NIU in 2013), both have won 6+ games against P5 teams, both have won three conference titles, and both have had an Heisman Trophy finalist (Kellen Moore finished fourth for Boise in 2010, while NIU's Jordan Lynch came in third in 2012).
And yet, both teams enter this game with just eight wins this year, an off-year for two of the most consistent teams in the NCAA.
For the Broncos, their offensive playcalling has been rather balanced - 485 passes and 497 rushes. And they can hurt you both ways.
Their freshman quarterback, Brett Rypien, has been throwing the ball all over the field this year, especially as of late. He has amassed a whopping 2,976 yards this year (1400 of which have been in the last four games) while completing 62.6% of his passes for 17 TDs and seven INTs. His main target this year has been their junior WR, Thomas Sperbeck. Sperbeck leads the team in receptions (82), receiving yards (1334), and touchdowns (eight). Only one other player has more than 500 receiving yards, Chaz Anderson (532).
On the ground Boise State calls on sophomore halfback Jeremy McNichols. McNichols has run the ball 221 times for 1244 yards (5.6 yards per carry). The 5'9 running back is both quick and powerful, so it's no surprise that he's found the endzone 18 times on the ground and another five times through the air. He's like Joel Bouagnon, but a little bit faster.
The Huskies' defense will have their hands full with this balanced attack from the Broncos.
Up front, the Huskies will need their linebackers to play well and make tackles. That all starts with senior Boomer Mays. Mays leads the team in tackles, with 108, and has five TFL, four pass breakups, two QB hurries, forced a fumble and intercepted a pass.
Rypien doesn't make a lot of mistakes, but when he does, he makes them in bunches. Six of the seven interceptions he has thrown have come in two games (three against Utah State, three against New Mexico). And he's going up against a team that's ninth in the country in turnovers gained and has the NCAA's leader in interceptions, Shawun Lurry. The Huskies have forced 27 turnovers this year (21 INTs, six fumbles), with Lurry being responsible for nine of the 21 picks.
There are only three teams that have more interceptions than NIU...Boise State is one of them (West Virginia and Arkansas State are the others). The Broncos are seventh in turnovers gained, with 28, and have 22 interceptions this year (three players have 3+ interceptions).
The Broncos defense plays as a unit and, instead of having one or two big-time stars, is filled with 11 very solid players. No one on the team has more than 66 tackles, but there are ten players with at least 35 (NIU only has five players with 35+ tackles).
Junior linebacker Ben Weaver leads the team in tackles, with 66, and also has four TFL, three interceptions, forced a fumble and recovered two.
This will be the fourth time the Huskies have played a team ranked in the top-25 in total defense - Boston College (1), Ohio State (10), and CMU (16). Boise is ranked 24th in total defense, allowing just 342 yards per game (177.7 rushing, 224.4 passing).
That's not an easy task for any STARTING quarterback...but the Huskies will have to rely on their backup QB, Ryan Graham. After Drew Hare was injured on November 3rd against Toledo, Graham stepped up and won big games against the Rockets, Buffalo, and Western Michigan. Graham was then injured in the loss to Ohio and missed the MAC Championship Game with a leg injury but it was announced that he will start the Poinsettia Bowl for NIU.
Since coming in for the injured Hare, Graham has made the most of his time as a starter. He has completed 60.5% of his passes for 622 yards and thrown six TDs and just two picks. He has also added 140 yards rushing. Kenny Golladay, the 6-foot-4 junior receiver, will be his best friend out there. Golladay leads every Huskies receiver with his 71 catches for 1,122 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The Huskies have always been a run-heavy team, and this year is not much different. The duo of Joel Bouagnon and Jordan Huff has been enough to keep NIU's offense rolling. Bouagnon, a tough, powerful runner, has amassed 1269 yards on 275 carries and, like McNichols, has 18 rushing touchdowns. Huff, who is more of a speed back, has come on strong in the past month and now has gained 640 yards on 81 carries (7.9 yards per carry) and has scored eight times. NIU will need to find away to get the ground game going against this stingy Bronco defense if they want to keep Rypien and the Boise offense off the field.
NIU's recent success has had many asking "are the Huskies the next Boise State"? Well, we'll all get to find out this week, as this game will certainly help provide an answer to that question. It won't be an easy win. The Huskies will need a to play a complete game on both sides of the ball if they want to come out on top.
It's one of the best bowl match-ups out there - and certainly the best non-P5 bowl game - so be sure to watch. The Poinsettia Bowl will air on ESPN this Wednesday, December 23rd, at 4:30 p.m. EST (3:30 CST).