With this year's Poinsettia Bowl featuring two of the best G5 teams in recent history - the Boise State Broncos and Northern Illinois Huskies - we're sure in for a treat! We reached out to the Boise State SBN site, One Bronco Nation Under God (OBNUG), to talk about this huge matchup.
Drew Roberts (@mybrainissmart) was kind enough to answer some questions we had for him.
Hustlebelt: The past five or so years a lot of people have been talking about how NIU "could become the next Boise State". And while we haven't been in the spotlight nearly as long as you guys, we'll finally get a chance to play it out on the gridiron.
I know that a lot of Huskie fans (myself included) think this is a really cool bowl match-up. Everyone who watches college football knows how good you guys are/have been. I'm curious as to what Bronco fans know/have heard about NIU and how the fans are reacting to this game?
OBNUG: I think most Bronco fans respect any other mid-major/G5 school that can sustain success because we know how hard it can be with the resource shortcomings we all face. Of course, "sustain" is the key word because a lot of "smaller" schools will have great seasons every know and again and people start throwing out the "next Boise State" tag. Boise State became "Boise State" by maintaining that status over a long period of time and staying somewhat relevant for much longer than most expected. Of course, most people know that the Utahs, TCUs, and Louisvilles of the world getting called up the P5 conferences kinda helped Boise State retain that giant-killer moniker and I think NIU has absolutely been neck and neck with the Broncos in terms of wins and relevancy the last 5 years. I also think most fans are thrilled to finally get a shot at the Huskies, but I'm sure both fanbases wished the inevitable clash had been in a NY6 bowl rather than the Poinsettia...hey, at least San Diego will be warm, right?
HB: Coming into the Poinsettia Bowl both NIU and Boise have lost two of their last three games. What's the atmosphere like in the Bronco locker room right now?
OBNUG: Hopefully not as dreary as it is amongst the fanbase. One thing I can say about Bronco fans is that they're spoiled rotten. Just like NIU, the bar has been raised over the last decade or so and people are no longer happy with mere winning seasons. Bronco fans want championships, NY6 bowls and to have Lou Holtz and Mark May argue over them in primetime again. Last seasons surprise Fiesta Bowl run also gave Bronco fans the expectation that Boise State was on the cusp of another dream stretch. Obviously, that wasn't the case...and honestly, Boise State probably should have won all their games this year...they were certainly favored in all of them, but that certain something was just missing. Losing a home game is nigh unheard of in Boise and the Broncos lost two this season...back-to-back. That probably was the bitterest pill the Broncos have swallowed in a long time and the losses probably hurt more because at least 3 of the 4 losses were very winnable games and because of the aforementioned expectations. Winning the season finale stopped the tailspin, but i think a lot of fans feel a win in San Diego is pretty vital to establishing positive momentum for 2016.
HB: The Bronco offense has been pretty balanced this year in their run-pass play selection. But NIU's defense has the nation's leader in interceptions (Shawun Lurry with nine INTs) and has held opponents to just 167 rushing yards per game. So with that said, what do you think the Huskies can expect to see from your offense?
OBNUG: Well, I hope the Huskies will see a balanced attack because if they don't, it means one facet of the offense simply isn't working and has been abandoned. Bronco fans that have been paying attention are very aware of Shawun Lurry and know that the NIU defense plays very physical. Boise State will need to match NIU's defensive physicality and not put everything on the shoulders of freshman QB Brett Rypien. Rypien is a good QB that may soon be a great QB, but for now he's a freshman QB and one that makes freshman mistakes. If NIU can effectively shut down the Bronco rushing attack and force Rypien's passing attempt numbers to creep up (he threw the ball 75 freaking times against New Mexico), the probability of Lurry or another Huskie forcing turnovers goes up exponentially, in my opinion.
HB: The Broncos are ranked 24th in the nation in total defense and only allow 117 rushing yards and 224 passing yards per game. The Huskies will be starting their second-string QB (Ryan Graham) and have always been a more run heavy offense. Is there a weakness to this team?! And what players on defense should NIU fans be looking out for?
OBNUG: The pass defense numbers don't look too bad, but that's clearly the Achilles of this Bronco defense. The Bronco front four and linebacking unit are very solid and teams have struggled on the ground all season and generally face third and long if they choose to run on first and second down. The good news for the Huskies (and the bad news for us) is third and long isn't terribly daunting against our secondary. The Broncos still don't allow a terribly high amount of 3rd down conversions (.324 pct), but struggle with giving up big plays. I haven't watched Graham much, but if he's mobile enough to extend plays in the backfield, the advantage tips in NIU's favor, asBoise State has, at times, been awful at "scramble drill" type of defense and don't hold their assignments for long.
That said...if healthy, Boise State has one of the premiere safeties in the country in senior Darian Thompson. Thompson is the Mountain West Conference's all time interceptions leader with 19 and is a two-time MWC first teamer. The Broncos other starting safety will be a backup, as the normal starter is out for the year with a broken ankle. That is the guy to test; Thompson is a dynamic playmaker. Another defensive standout is junior DE Kamalei Correa. He hasn't had quite the season in 2015 as he had last year when he led the conference with 12.5 sacks...but he's still a very disruptive presence on the edge and despite his sack number sagging (just 5 this season), his quarterback hurries and disruption of passing lanes is still a concern for opposing offenses. One last player that NIU might be wise to be wary of would be senior CB Donte Deayon who is small-ish, but every bit the ballhawk that Thompson is. In fact, if Deayon hadn't had to sit a few games after getting his knee scoped, he might have broken the MWC INT record alongside Thompson.
HB: Finally, do you have any predictions or care to speculate on how this game will play out?
OBNUG: This year has really shaken my confidence in my psychic abilities. The bottom line is I still believe that Boise State can beat any team they encounter, I just don't believe that they necessarily will. The Broncos have been inconsistent this season both in effort and in execution. If the Broncos come to play, they'll give the Huskies a helluva fight...if not, it's an offseason full of "what-ifs". Trust me, Bronco fans don't handle "what-ifs" very well. Boise State has dynamic playmakers on offense (Brett Rypien, WR Thomas Sperbeck, RB Jeremy McNichols)...but needs these guys to have good games to get over on NIU. They just don't have a glut of playmakers outside those 3...at least on a consistent basis. Defensively, the Broncos need to rattle Graham and force some turnovers...and frankly, hope that Graham isn't 100% because the secondary needs all the help they can get. I watched NIU play Ohio State earlier this year and was impressed with how hard the team played (especially on defense) and think the Broncos absolutely have to match that intensity and physicality to have any hope of pulling out a win. I'd like to think Harsin and his coordinators are at their best when given ample time to prepare...and given the fact that I don't think the Huskies could have installed the triple option offense in this amount of time, I like our chances...but just slightly.
I'd be lying if I said this game didn't make me very nervous...but I loath picking against us: Boise State 31, NIU 24