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2021 Cure Bowl Preview: NIU Huskies vs Coastal Carolina Chanticleers

The Huskies and Chanticleers face off Friday night in a battle between two of the NCAA’s top rushing offenses.

2021 MAC Championship - Kent State v Northern Illinois Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images

The Northern Illinois Huskies, fresh off their MAC Championship Game win, will head to Orlando, Florida to take part in the Cure Bowl. The Huskies (9-4, 7-2 MAC) will square off against one of the best G5 teams over the past few seasons - the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers.

Coastal Carolina (10-2, 6-2 Sun Belt) was ranked as high as #14 in the country earlier this season and has gone a very impressive 21-3 over the last two seasons. CCU also received two votes in last Coaches Poll, while the Huskies netted a single vote in the latest AP poll.

Game Info

When: Friday, December 17th at 6 p.m. (5 p.m. CST)
Where: Exploria Stadium — Orlando, FL
Watch: ESPN2
Weather: Mostly sunny with some clouds and temps in the 70s at kickoff
Odds: Coastal is favored by 10 points and has a 78.1% chance of winning according to ESPN’s FPI

Cure Bowl History

The Cure Bowl was organized to help promote awareness and research for breast cancer, with proceeds going to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. The inaugural game was played in 2015 and all seven contests have taken place in Orlando, Florida.

The bowl’s primarily has tie-ins to the American and Sun Belt conferences with C-USA and the MAC being alternates.

Coastal Carolina will be playing in the game for the second straight year. Last season, the #9 Chanticleers faced off against #23 Liberty in the game, with the Flames claiming a 37-34 overtime win and handing CCU their only loss of the season.

NIU will become the first MAC team to ever play in the Cure Bowl.

Year-by-Year Results:
2015: San Jose State 27, Georgia State 16
2016: Arkansas State 31, UCF 13
2017: Georgia State 27, Western Kentucky 17
2018: Tulane 41, Louisiana 24
2019: Liberty 23, Georgia Southern 16
2020: #23 Liberty 37, #9 Coastal Carolina 34 (OT)

This will be Coastal Carolina’s second bowl game ever, with the first being last year’s Cure Bowl.

For the Huskies, it will be their 14th bowl game and first since 2018. NIU is currently 4-9 in bowl games but has lost their last six bowl games. They haven’t won a bowl game since the 2011-12 season, when they beat Arkansas State in the Bowl on January 8th, 2012.

The Chanticleers

Coastal Carolina has been a force in the G5 rankings as of late. The Chants have been ranked in the top-15 in each of the last two seasons, climbing as high as #9 last year and #14 this season.

This year they are doubling up their opponents, scoring 40.4 points per game (t-13th in the NCAA) while giving up just 20.0 points per game. And they put up those 40 points with a very balanced offense. Coastal nets 261.8 passing yards and 231.3 rushing yards per game, with their total of 493.1 yards ranking 7th most in the FBS.

Quarterback Grayson McCall has one of the most efficient passers this season. His 73.0% completion rate is fifth best in the NCAA and his 12.1 yards per pass attempts leads the NCAA by a full two yards (Georgia’s Stetson Bennett is second with 10.1/attempt).

McCall has completed 154 of his 211 passes for 2,558 yards and has a crazy good TD/INT ratio, passing for 23 scores and just three interceptions. He’s only been sacked 14 times and can extend plays with his legs as well, rushing for 250 yards on 83 carries and finding the endzone four times on the ground.

Backup QB, Bryce Carpenter, has seen time in ten games this season and is more of a dual-threat. He has thrown for 483 yards and four touchdowns on 41/69 passing (59.4%) and rushed for 217 yards and three TDs on his 54 carries. He’s run the ball on 44% of the snaps he’s taken so if he’s in, there’s a better chance it’ll be a run.

Wide out Jaivon Heiligh and tight end Isaiah Likely have been the main targets this season. Heiligh leads the team in receptions (59) and receiving yards (1,034) and has seven touchdowns. Likely is right behind him, with 52 catches for 816 yards but has a team-leading ten TD receptions. He also has the longest touchdown reception of the year, going 99 yards untouched against Arkansas State. Kameron Brown is also a threat on the outside, snagging 33 passes for 567 yards and five touchdowns.

On the ground, CCU’s 231.3 rushing yards per game is sixth best in the NCAA (sitting right behind NIU’s 234.3). The Chants have three running backs with over 500 rushing yards and have scored 34 times on the ground.

Shermari Jones gets the bulk of the carries. Jones leads the Chants with 151 carries, 988 yards, and 13 touchdowns. His 6.5 yard per carry is insane but it’s not even the best on the team. Leading that category is Braydon Bennett who is netting a ridiculous 7.8 yards per carry (528 yards and five TDs on just 68 rushes). Reese White also nets over seven yards per rush, scampering for 516 yards and seven scores on 71 touches (7.3/rush).

On defense Coastal is holding teams to 325 yards and just 20 points per game. Opponents haven’t had much success at all, running for an average of 133.9 yards per game and passing for a mere 191.1 per game.

CCU gets a lot of pressure in the backfield, amassing 80 TFLs and 32 sacks. Six players have eight or more TFLs.

Leading the way up front is freshman defensive end Josaiah Stewart. Stewart has been named to multiple All-American teams and for good reason. He has tallied 12.5 sacks (t-4th in the NCAA), 15.5 TFL (t-16th in the NCAA), and has 42 total tackles, three QBH, and three forced fumbles.

Right behind him is a slew of linebackers that can create havoc - Silas Kelly, Teddy Gallagher, Enock Makonzo, and Jeffery Gunter.

Kelly leads the team in tackles, with 96, and has added eight TFL, 2.5 sacks, a pair of pass break ups, two QBH, and has an interception. Gallagher sits right behind him with 77 stops, eight TFL, two sacks, five QBH, and has forced and recovered a fumble.

Makonzo plays the spur position (a LB/Safety hybrid) and has 60 tackles, nine TFL, three forced fumbles, three QBH, a pass break up, and a fumble recovery.

Gunter, who plays the bandit position (a DE/LB hybrid), has 41 total stops with ten TFL, 6.5 sacks, five QBH, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, a pass break up, and has even blocked a kick.

The Huskies

Northern Illinois has finally found a way to move the ball again. After struggling on offense for the past five years, the Huskies have finally found their groove again. They are averaging 422.2 yards per game, with most of the yardage coming on the ground - 234.3 rushing yards (5th best in the NCAA) to 187.8 passing yards per game.

NIU has been one of the best at controlling the clock this season. The Huskies’ average 33:03 in time of possession, which is tenth in the NCAA. However, they are one of just four teams to have held the ball for more than 425 minutes on the season - Air Force and Houston have each had possession for 440 minutes while Army and NIU have had the rock for 429 minutes each.

Five Huskies have rushed for 400 or more yards this season, with Jay Ducker leading the way. Ducker averages 5.4 yards per carry and went over the century mark on the season in the MACCG. He now has 1,038 yard and three TDs on his 194 carries.

Fullback Clint Ratkovich has been a steady powerful back, rushing for 448 yards and a team-leading 12 touchdowns on the season...including a 96-yard run against WMU (the longest since the 1930s for NIU).

Antario Brown will also see action behind them. Brown has 433 yards and four scores on his 69 attempts. Quarterback Rocky Lombardi also gets in on the action, rushing for 406 yards and eight touchdowns on the season.

When he’s not carrying the ball, Lombardi has completed 58.1% of his passes for 2,416 yards and 13 touchdowns. If Lombardi passes for 129 yards in this game, he will pass Josh Haldi (2,554 yards, 2003) for fifth most passing yards in a single season at NIU. Lombardi has only been sacked eight times this season but he has thrown eight picks (with three of them coming in a single game early in the season).

Freshman Trayvon Rudolph has exploded for the Huskies this season. The wide receiver leads the team in receptions (49), yards (877), and touchdowns (seven). He’s already set the single game record for receiving yards in a game with 309 yards (both an NIU’s and MAC record) against Kent State early this season. He also has 351 kick return yards, scored on a 100-yard return, and is just 93 yards away from passing Matt Simon (969 yards, 2007) for the tenth best receiving season in Huskie history.

Cole Tucker will be Lombardi’s other main target. The senior has 488 yards and two scores on his 35 grabs.

Defensively the Huskies have shown their youth and inexperience at points this season. Teams are scoring 32.7 points and totaling 447.8 yards per game against NIU; and they’ve done it in a very balanced fashion, averaging 232.1 yards passing and 215.7 yards rushing against this young defense.

Freshman safety C.J. Brown leads the team in tackles, with 104, and has added 3.5 TFL, a sack, a QBH, and just snagged his first interception last game, a 26-yard pick six for NIU.

Behind Brown sits a trio of linebackers - Lance Deveaux Jr. (playing in his final game for NIU), Nick Rattin, and Dillon Thomas.

Deveaux’s 69 tackles is second best on the team and he’s also added eight TFL (team high), 1.5 sacks, and forced a fumble. Rattin has 65 stops in addition to his six TFL, six QBH, forced fumble, and sack. Finally Thomas, a DB turned LB, has amassed 62 tackles, five TFL, five QBH, three sacks, three pass break ups, and an interception.

This should be another close, hard fought game for the Huskies. It features two of the best rushing attacks in the FBS and will likely come down to how well the Huskie secondary can keep up with McCall and the Coastal receivers.

McCall’s efficiency might give the Huskies defense some fits and allow for some chunk plays through the air.

However, the Huskie defense played really well against the Golden Flashes last time out and will need to do the same here. They were able to get turnovers and pressure on one of the better offenses in the NCAA and, with Coastal running a similar style offense to Kent State, having seen the Flashes twice this season should help the Huskies out some.

NIU has been an underdog in nearly every game this season, so being in that role once again isn’t going to change their style or game plan. The Huskies just need to make sure they don’t hurt themselves with turnovers and penalties.

If they can keep possession, keep the clock running, and keep that dangerous CCU offense on the sidelines, they should have a chance at winning their first bowl game in nearly a decade.