The Northern Illinois Huskies are headed to Ford Field in Detroit for the seventh time in eight years for a post-season game...however, instead of vying for the MAC Championship Game, the Huskies will be participating in the Quick Lane Bowl against the Duke Blue Devils (6-6, 3-5 ACC). It will be the first ever meeting between the Huskies and Blue Devils and both teams’ first appearance in the Quick Lane Bowl.
Duke is the second ACC team that the Huskies will battle this season, as NIU lost a nail-biter to Boston College in Week 1. The Blue Devils won their first four games but then fell apart, losing their next six in a tough conference slate, before righting the ship and gaining bowl eligibility by winning their final two matches.
NIU, after a down year in 2016, is making a bowl appearance for the ninth time in ten years after going 8-4 (6-2 MAC) this year, including a huge win at Nebraska. The Huskies have hung around in every game and have relied heavily on their stout defense to get victories.
Duke and NIU are very similar teams and this should prove to be a very hard fought, tight contest between two teams with great defenses and bipolar offenses.
Setting the Stage:
Date/Time: Tuesday, December 26th, at 5:15 EST (4:15 CST)
Where: Ford Field - Detroit, Michigan
TV: ESPN and the ESPN App
Odds: Duke is a 5.5 point favorite and ESPN’s FPI gives the Blue Devils a 67.6% chance to win
Both teams have shaky offenses that leave you wondering which version will show up week to week.
Duke’s offense has been streaky this season to say the least. Especially at QB.
Sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones has completed 55.7% of his passes for 2439 yards and 12 touchdowns but has also thrown 11 interceptions. He can also move the ball with his legs some too...rushing 145 times for 432 yards and six more scores.
In the first four games (all wins), Jones was hitting on just under 62% of his passes for 226 yards per game and had eight total TDs to just two picks. In the next six games (all loses) he completed under 50% of pass attempts, managed just 168.7 yards per game, and had just three touchdowns. We’ll just have to wait and see which Jones shows up for the Quick Lane bowl.
Jones does spread the ball around well, as eight receivers have 12+ receptions on the season and five players have 200+ yards. His main target is T.J. Rahming, who has 61 grabs and 733 yards but only one touchdown. Johnathan Lloyd is a distant second with 364 yards on 37 receptions.
When Jones isn’t running the ball himself, he’ll hand it off to either Shaun Wilson or Brittain Brown. The duo tore up the ACC and are pretty close in touches. Wilson leads the team with 146 carries and 743 yards (5.1 average) while Brown has 660 yards on 117 rushes (5.6 average). Brown and Jones each have six rushing scores while Wilson is right behind them with five.
In other news, it was announced before the bowl game that Duke’s kicker, Austin Parker, was dismissed from the team. Parker was 17-21 on field goals and 33-35 on extra points this season. Backup kicker, William Holmquist, has only attempted one extra point this season (he made it).
NIU’s offense, much like Duke, is a mystery week to week. Some days they’ll move the ball incredibly well and others they can buy a first down.
And it’ll get even tougher. It was confrimed by Coach Rod Carey that senior running back, Jordan Huff, will miss the bowl game as he’ll be having surgery on his injured ankle. Huff was NIU’s leading rusher, with 740 yards, and, when in, was a big time play-maker.
Instead the Huskies will turn to the trio of Marcus Jones, Tre Harbison, and Tommy Mister. Jones is third on the team with 347 yards and three touchdowns on 82 carries while Harbison has 231 yards and Mister has 167.
Quarterback Marcus Childers is second on the team with 454 rushing yards and leads the team with five rushing touchdowns but he also throws the ball pretty well too. He is completing 57.3% of his passes for 1440 yards and 15 touchdowns to just five interceptions.
Childers has five targets that all have 28+ receptions and 280+ yards. Spencer Tears leads all Huskies with 39 catches for 461 yards. Right behind him are Christian Blake and D.J. Brown who each have 38 grabs for 414 and 342 yards respectively. Tight end Shane Wimann leads everyone with seven touchdowns on his 30 receptions that have gone for 283 yards. And then there’s senior Chad Beebe who only has 28 grabs but is second on the team with 417 yards.
Both NIU and Duke have top-25 defenses (NIU is 18th in total defense, while Duke is 23rd) and are only allowing 20.8 points per game.
The Blue Devils, much like the Huskies, rely on their tough defense to keep games close. Duke is giving up just 335 yards per game, 175 passing and 160 rushing. They are ranked 12th in the NCAA is pass defense and have forced 15 picks...four of which were returned for scores.
On the ground they don’t get as much pressure in the backfield as NIU does but that doesn’t mean they aren’t solid there either. Their 78 TFLs and 27 sacks are both top-50. Duke is only allowing 4.1 yards per rush and opponents are only converting on 33.7% of third downs.
Like NIU, they are led by a sophomore - linebacker Joe Giles-Harris.
Giles-Harris has been all over the field, amassing 117 tackles (51 solo, 66 assisted), 4.5 sacks, 15 tackles for loss, seven QB Hurries, four pass break ups, an interception, and forced a fumble.
Mark Gilbert and Jeremy McDuffie have been a studs in the secondary. Gilbert has six picks and 13 pass break ups to go with his 31 tackles while McDuffie has three picks, nine break ups, and his 58 tackles are fourth most on the team.
The Huskies defense has been their savior all season long.
NIU is in the top-10 in team tackles for loss (8.8/game, tied for 1st), team sacks (3.42/game, 2nd in the NCAA), defensive touchdowns (five, tied for 3rd), and third down conversion percentage (28.4%, 6th).
On the ground they’re only allowing 112.3 yards per game (12th in the NCAA) and 2.8 yards per rush (tied for 2nd in the NCAA).
Sutton Smith has been a monster all season long. He broke NIU’s single season record for sacks (14) and tackles for loss (28.5), both of which are best in the NCAA. If he can manage four TFL against Duke, he’ll break the NCAA single season record for TFL.
When it’s not Smith making plays, linebackers Bobby Jones and Jawuan Johnson normally do. They lead the team with 97 and 86 tackles respectively. Jones also has 11 TFL, four sacks, and a pick while Johnson has 13.5 TFL, three sacks, five picks (most on the team), three forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery.
However, teams have been able to beat NIU through the air...as the once mighty secondary has given up a lot of big plays this season. The Huskies will have to get to Jones and force him to get rid of the ball quickly or take a sack.
The Quick Lane Bowl is match up of two teams that mirror each other perfectly. Expect a defensive battle and some struggles on offense.
A lot will depend on which Jones shows up at QB for Duke...if the “good Jones” shows up, NIU might be in for a long day but if the “bad Jones” comes out, the Huskies should be able to keep Duke under control and win.
So it’ll come down to which offense can do more against a better defense. Or which defense can score more points (as the two teams have combined for nine defensive TDs).
The Huskies have a few more offensive weapons and a slightly better defense than Duke. Plus, they know Ford Field. Expect a close game but NIU should be able to pull it out. 24-21.