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Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl Preview: UAB Blazers vs Northern Illinois Huskies

The Blazers and Huskies will meet for the first time ever in the Boca Raton Bowl

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MAC Championship - Buffalo v Northern Illinois Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

This Tuesday the Northern Illinois Huskies will face off against the UAB Blazers in the Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl. And, if you’re a fan of either team, no doubt you’ve already heard that this is just one of three bowl games (and the only non-New Years Six bowl) that features two conference champions - UAB won the C-USA title in their rematch with Middle Tennessee State and NIU had that amazing 20-point comeback win against Buffalo.

The bowl game marks the first ever meeting between the two schools and neither has much history against their opponent’s conference either.

This is just the third time ever that the Huskies will take on a C-USA opponent. They are 0-2 against the conference, losing to Louisville (27-3) back in 1996 and Marshall (52-23) in this very bowl game in 2014. For the Blazers, they too have only played twice against MAC squads, both in 2017. They lost to Ball State (51-31) and, in the Bahamas Bowl, fell to Ohio (41-6).


Boca Raton Bowl Info

When: Tuesday, Dec. 18th, 7:00 p.m. (6 p.m. CST)
Where: FAU Stadium — Boca Raton, FL (29,495 capacity)
Watch: ESPN
Weather: Clear and low-70s/high-60s at game time
Odds: UAB is a 2.5-point favorite and has a 54.9% chance of winning according to ESPN’s FPI predictor. The over/under is 43.


UAB Blazers

UAB v Texas A&M Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Quick Facts:

2018 Record: 10-3 (8-1 C-USA)
Wins: Savannah State, Tulane, Charlotte, Louisiana Tech, Rice, North Texas, UTEP, UTSA, Southern Mississipp, Middle Tennessee State (C-USA Championship Game)
Losses: Coastal Carolina, Texas A&M, Middle Tennessee State
Bowl History: 0-2

  • 2004 Hawaii Bowl (L, 40-59 to Hawaii)
  • 2017 Bahamas Bowl (L, 6-41 to Ohio)

Head Coach: Bill Clark (3rd season at UAB, 4th overall), 35-18 (24-14 at UAB)
Points per game: 29.3
Points allowed: 17.3
Yards per game: 400.3 (191.5 passing, 208.8 rushing)
Yards allowed: 300.8 (181.9 passing, 118.8 rushing)

Offense:

The Blazers starting quarterback, senior A.J. Erdely, will be questionable for the bowl game as he is still nursing a shoulder injury that kept him out of the C-USA Championship Game. But that’s nothing new to UAB as Erdely has missed four games this season and they have had success with their backup, freshman Tyler Johnson III, who has appeared in all but two games this year, and started all four games Erdely missed.

Erdely, this season, has 56.1% of his passes for 1539 yards and has thrown seven touchdowns and seven interceptions. Johnson III has very similar stats, connecting on 56.8% of his throws for 950 yards and seven TDs but has thrown eight interceptions.

Both QBs aren’t afraid to run either but Johnson III is certainly more apt to doing so. He is UAB’s second leading rusher with 331 yards on 80 carries and has four touchdowns while Erdely has 257 yards and five touchdowns on his 84 rushes.

But look for the Blazer to give halfback Spencer Brown the bulk of the carries. The 6-foot, 220 pound sophomore has amassed 1149 yards and 16 touchdowns (which is 7th most in the NCAA) on his 247 carries for an average of 4.7 yards per rush.

When UAB does throw the ball, they’ll look for one of their four main receivers - Xavier Ubosi, Andre Wilson, Kailon Carter, and Collin Lisa. Each of those players has 20+ receptions and 400 yards (Lisa only has 398 but that’s close enough and he’ll most likely hit that 400 mark on Tuesday night).

Ubosi leads all receivers with 610 yards and is tied with Wilson with five receiving scores. Wilson’s 30 grabs is first on the team and his 486 yards rank second. Carter has 22 catches for 443 yards and a pair of TDs while Lisa has those 398 yards and a score on his 29 snags.

Defense:

Like the Huskies, UAB’s defese has been the star of the show. They rank 11th in total defense - giving up just 300.8 yards per game - and are tied for 10th in scoring defense - allowing just 17.3 points per game. They’re also fourth in the NCAA in sacks (43, or 3.37 per game) and fifth in TLF (105, 8.1 per game).

But the amazing defensive stats don’t end there. On 3rd-downs opponents are converting a mere 25% of the time, which is second best in the NCAA behind the Miami Hurricanes. And, if you can’t get a new set of downs after three tries...don’t expect to on fourth down either because they lead the country on 4th-down conversions, allowing just 27.8% of fourth down attempts to succeed.

Up front senior defensive linemen Jamell Garcia-Williams has been a terror. His 42 tackles might rank sixth on the team but he’s a beast. Garcia-Williams has 15.5 TFL, 9.5 sacks, four pass break ups and a fumble recovery.

Linebackers Tre’ Crawford and Chris Woolbright are also threats to bring down opposing QBs. On the season Crawford’s netted 38 tackles, 12 TFL, 8 sacks, six QB hurries, and has a fumble recover while Woolbright leads the team with 74 total tackles and has 13.5 TFL, two sacks, two interceptions, and two pass break ups.

All in all, eight Blazer defenders have six or more tackles for loss (NIU has five players with 6+ TFL) and 17 players have recorded a sack (only 12 Huskies have a sack this year).

This is a defense that will get after you and, if you don’t have a good O-line, will hurt you.

Special Teams:

While UAB has blocked three kicks they’ve also had four of their attempts blocked.

Their kicker, Nick Vogel, is also very, very shaky from 40+. He’s converted on just 12 of 21 field goals (57.1%) and has a long of 51 yards. But, while he’s 10-10 from inside 39-yards, he’s a dismal 1-7 from 40-49-yards and just 1-4 from 50+ with three attempts being blocked.

Their punter, Kyle Greenwell, has played better, punting 56 times with an average of 40.3 yards per kick with a long of 57. He has dropped 14 inside the 20-yard line, has just four touchbacks, and has boomed seven kicks more than 50-yards.

As far as returns go, the Blazers are averaging 10.9 yards per punt return and 20.5 yards per kick return, both of which are middle of the road numbers.


NIU Huskies

NCAA Football: MAC Championship-Northern Illinois at Buffalo Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Quick Facts:

2018 Record: 8-5 (7-2 MAC)
Bowl History: 4-8

  • Since 2004 have played in a bowl game every year except for three (2005, 2007, 2016)
  • Last: 2017 Quick Lane Bowl (L, 14-36 to Duke)
  • Last bowl win: 2011 GoDaddy.com Bowl (38-20 over Arkansas State)

Head Coach: Rod Carey (6th season, all at NIU), 52-29 (0-5 in bowl games)
Points per game: 20.7
Points allowed: 21.5
Yards per game: 325.0 (153.5 passing, 171.5 rushing)
Yards allowed: 347.9 (238.2 passing, 109.7 rushing)

Offense

The Huskies offense seemed to finally click in the MAC title game (especially in the second half) as quarterback Marcus Childers had his best game to date.

Childers passed for 300 yards and four touchdowns in the come-from-behind win and it was (sadly) just his second game this year with 200+ passing yards. His accuracy (especially on deep passes) was finally there and the receivers didn’t drop the passes like they had all season long.

But, on the season, Northern has struggled to move the ball against tough defenses...although, they’ve had a lot of experience this season with strong defensive units, so this game shouldn’t be any different.

Childers, overall, has now completed 57.6% of his passes for 1996 yards and 15 touchdowns while throwing 10 interceptions (half of which, however, were in the final four games of the year).

But, as he has shown more consistently in the second half of the season, he can also hurt you with his legs. In the first six games he only netted 73 total rushing yards and one rushing TD. Now Childers has 496 rushing yards (3rd on the team), has ran for 50+ yards in each of the last four games, and leads NIU in rushing touchdowns, with six.

The Huskies ground game, though, is anchored by Tre Harbison. Harbison will most likely break the 1000 yard mark early on in the game. He currently sits at 985 yards this year, is averaging 5.2 yards per rush, and has four touchdowns. And behind him is another solid back in Marcus Jones. Jones has the higher average, gaining 5.6 yards per run, but only has 93 carries, which have gone for 523 yards and four scores.

Childers, when he passes, looks for one of three Huskie receivers - D.J. Brown, Jauan Wesley, or Spencer Tears. Brown and Wesley have been key targets all season while Tears has finally started to make noise late in the year - 50% of his catches, 62% of his yards, and 75% of his touchdowns have come in the past three games.

Brown leads all Huskies with 55 catches and five scores but his 484 yards are second on the team. Wesley has the most yardage, with 585 yards, but just two TDs on his 49 grabs. Tears now has 372 yards and four touchdowns on 34 receptions (with 17 catches, 231 yards, and three TDs in the last three games).

Defense:

Huskie defensive end, Sutton Smith, will get all the attention in this game...and it is certainly deserved. But it’s the Huskies whole defensive unit that has really kept them in every game and is the reason NIU is once again the MAC Champs.

The Huskies rank first in the NCAA with 50 sacks on the season (3.85 per game) and are right behind the Blazers in TFL, as their 104 TFL (8.0 per game) puts them at 6th in the nation. NIU also ranks 26th in scoring defense and 31st in total defense and they’ve done that consistently against much stronger teams than the Blazers defense has faced. The Huskies are run killers, allowing just 2.7 yards per carry (second best in the NCAA) and a mere 109.7 per game (14th in the nation).

Sutton Smith, as I mentioned, is the biggest reason why and is probably the most notable player in this bowl game. And for good reason - his stats are insane. He was a consensus All-American last year and should have been this year too. As it stands, Smith has 56 total tackles, 24.5 TFL (second most in the NCAA), 15 sacks (tied for most in the NCAA), nine QB hurries, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, two blocked kicks, and two touchdowns (a fumble returned 85-yards and a blocked punt returned 27-yards).

When it’s not Smith making a play in the backfield, odds are it’s Josh Corcoran. Corcoran, the other Huskie defensive end, is successful because teams have to lock in on Smith which frees him up. Corcoran has 28 tackles, 12.5 TFL, 10 sacks (8th in the NCAA), five QB hurries, and a forced fumble. NIU is the only school to have two players with 10+ sacks this season.

If you get past NIU’s defensive front, it will most likely be linebackers Antonio Jones-Davis or Kyle Pugh bringing you down. Jones-Davis leads the team with 119 tackles while Pugh is a close second with 99. Jones-Davis is second on the team in TFL, with 13.5, and has also accumulated four sacks, six pass break ups, and two fumble recoveries. Pugh has five TFL, 1.5 sacks, four QB hurries, and recovered a pair of fumbles.

Special Teams:

The Huskies have struggled with kickers the past few season and, after another shaky start, Andrew Gantz has finally seemed to settle down. He’s 11-16 this season with a long of 49, although he has the range for more.

Punter Matt Ference is averaging 40.1 yards per punt but has been really solid for NIU, placing 32 punts inside the 20-yard line and launching 13 kicks more than 50-yards, with a long of 62!

No one has blocked an NIU kick or punt attempt this season, while the Huskies’ special teams unit has blocked five kicks, which ranks them fifth in the nation.

On returns, the Huskies net just 6.6 yards per punt return and 16.3 yards on kickoffs...which are both in the bottom third.


How They Match Up:

Offensive edge: UAB

It should come as no surprise that the Blazers get the nod in the offensive category. They have a very strong rushing attack that nets nearly 209 yards per game and is ranked 28th in the nation...plus they have a duo of effective quarterbacks that can keep drives going. NIU, however, is a much more hit or miss team...you never know what you’re going to get from them offensively.

Defensive edge: NIU

I might catch some slack for this one but...the Huskies defense is the better unit. Sure, UAB has allowed less yards and points but the level of competition the Blazers have faced is no where near that of the Huskies. NIU is battle tested and facing teams like Iowa, Utah, Florida State, BYU, and even Buffalo and Ohio, which of course will hurt your numbers some.

UAB has played a much easier schedule, with their non-conference games coming against Savannah State (FCS), Coastal Carolina, Tulane, and Texas A&M. The FBS teams put up at least 350 yards against UAB...and Tulane and Coastal Carolina aren’t even that great this year.

I’m not saying UAB’s defense isn’t good or won’t be able to stop NIU’s offense...because, let’s be real, it’s not that hard to. But I am saying the Huskies do have the better overall defense. And they’ve faced a much harder slate of teams than UAB.

Special teams edge: NIU

While UAB might have the better kick/punt return numbers, the Huskies have the edge in special teams. They have not had one kick/punt blocked this season, while blocking five of their own. Ference’s punting has pinned opponents inside the 5-yard line on numerous occasions and, even though neither team has an outstanding field goal kicker, Gantz is certainly the better of the two.


Prediction

This should be a close, low-scoring game that will come down to the wire.

UAB has never won a bowl game. NIU has lost five straight...something has to give here.

From everything else I’ve read about this game, the Huskie defense is being vastly underrated in comparison to the Blazer defense.

And, offensively, Spencer Brown has yet to run against a defense as stout as the Huskies run D...only Texas A&M is close in rushing defense (3.19 yards per rush to NIU’s 2.69) and the Blazers only were able to net 111 yards there, so I expect UAB’s offense to stall out more than they might be used to.

The Blazers’ offensive line has been great at protecting their QB, allowing just 23 sacks this season. Buffalo’s line had only allowed eight sacks in 12 games...until they met Smith and Corcoran. NIU sacked Buffalo’s Tyree Jackson four times in the second half alone.

And while I don’t trust Rod Carey in bowl games at all...look at the last three bowl game results...I think the Huskies have a good shot to be able to do just enough to sneak out of Florida with the win.

UAB Blazers - 21
NIU Huskies - 27