The 2021 Cure Bowl kicks off Friday evening at 6 p.m. (5 p.m. Central) and features two of the best G5 teams this season - the Northern Illinois Huskies and Coastal Carolina Chanticleers.
Northern Illinois (9-4, 7-2 MAC) will be playing in their 14th bowl game, and their first since 2018. Coastal Carolina (10-2, 6-2 Sun Belt) is making just their second bowl appearance, with the first coming last season. But, for a team that only joined the FBS ranks five seasons ago, that’s damn good.
NIU, fresh off their MAC Championship win, entered the season with the second youngest roster in the FBS and was picked to finish dead last in the MAC. However, the team “bought the dip”, as Coach Thomas Hammock says, and has found ways to win all season long, albeit mostly in close games. Nine of their 13 games have been within a single score, with the Huskies claiming a 7-2 record in those contests.
The Huskies are looking for their first 10-win season since 2014 and their first bowl win since the 2011 season.
The Adjustment Bureau:
The Huskies have a knack for keeping games close and finding a way to squeak out win after win...but a key factor in doing that has been the ability to change their offense to get yardage/points in whatever fashion they need.
While NIU tries to be a more run-heavy team, Hammock will make in-game adjustments and allow his quarterback to shine when needed. A perfect example of this is the stark contrast between the Bowling Green game and the game against Kent State just two games later.
Against Bowling Green, the Huskies ran the ball 59 times, with quarterback Rocky Lombardi attempting only EIGHT passes and finishing the game with 38 yards. However, just two games later against the Flashes, Lombardi set the single-game record for NIU as he threw for 532 yards and had 57 pass attempts (the most attempts for an NIU quarterback since 1963).
With being able to throw the ball successfully when needed, while still maintaining a strong run game, it’s no wonder this is the most complete and efficient offense we’ve seen in DeKalb since the Jordan Lynch era in 2012/13.
The numbers on defense haven’t been nearly as great for NIU, as the Huskies have been caught out of position, allowing for quite a few big plays.
Defensively, the Huskies youth and inexperience have shown at points, as the team has given up 31 big plays (30+ yards) on the year.
Six teams — Michigan, EMU, Toledo, BG, Kent State, and WMU — had three or more big plays, with the Golden Flashes leading the way. Kent torched the Huskies en route to SIX plays of 30+ in the teams’ first meeting. Falcons, surprisingly, had the second most big plays, gaining 30+ four times.
In fact, NIU’s defense has given up at least one play of 30+ yards in every game but one - the MAC Championship Game. Although, in that game Kent State did have a 75-yard TD pass called back on a penalty and also had two bigger runs of 24- and 26-yards.
May the Forth Be With You:
The Huskies seem to play their best in the fourth quarter, with both the offense and defense posting their best numbers in the final fifteen minutes. And, oddly enough, the offense and defense seem to have different patterns when it comes to production.
The defense gets the job done early on, then will struggle in the middle before dominating the fourth quarter. The Huskies have given up 425 points on the season, with only 76 (17.8%) coming in the opening frame. However, opponents have had a field day in the middle part of the game, scoring 152 points in the second quarter and 113 more in the third. NIU’s defense then clamps down hard and has only allowed 84 points in the fourth/OT.
NIU’s offense, however, seems to like even numbers. Of the 410 points they’ve scored, most have come in the second and fourth quarters. The Huskies struggle out of the gates, netting only 57 (13.9%) first quarter points, before they find a rhythm and tallied 135 second quarter points. Northern also starts slow after halftime, with only 73 third quarter points, before the offense (and defense) comes out guns blazing in the final frame. The Huskies have amassed 145 fourth quarter/overtime points (35.4% of their total points) and have out-scored opponents by 61 points in last fifteen minutes of the game...it’s the only quarter the Huskies are out-scoring their opponents.
Coastal has quickly become a force in college football. Their first season ever was just 18 years ago, in 2003 (the same year NIU beat #19 Alabama and #15 Maryland). In a very short time frame they went from not existing, to the top of the FCS, to now being one of the best G5 schools. Last year the Chanticleers won their first eleven games of the season and were even ranked in the top-10 before losing the 2020 Cure Bowl, in overtime, to Liberty and finishing the year ranked #14.
This season, after winning their first six games, the Chants once again reached the #14 ranking before losing to Appalachian State, 30-27, on a walk-off field goal. Since then, they have won four of their last five games, only stumbling against Georgia State, who stuffed a potential game-tying two point conversion with just over a minute remaining to win 42-40.
Tis the (Post) Season
Over the past two season, the Chanticleers have put together a very impressive record, going 21-3, and a win here would give them back-to-back 11-win seasons. And, even though this is just Coastal’s second bowl game, the Chants have plenty of post-season experience.
During their time in the FCS, Coastal made six playoff appearance, including a four year stretch from 2012-2015. CCU even made the quarterfinals in consecutive years, 2013 and 2014, before losing to the eventual Champions, North Dakota State, both times.
Including their appearance in the Cure Bowl last season, the Chanticleers have a post-season record of 4-7.
This will be the fourth meeting between Coastal Carolina and a team from Illinois. The Chants are 1-2 in the three previous game, with all three of those contests coming against the Western Illinois Leathernecks. However, this will be the second time they have faced off against Clint Ratkovich, now a senior running back for NIU.
They first saw WIU back in 2010, when the teams met in the first round of the FCS Playoffs. Western scored a touchdown with less than two minutes remaining and held on to win 17-10.
Then, in 2015, the #2-ranked Chants hosted Western and were able to get their revenge. Despite being out-gained by nearly 200 yards (546-349), Coastal managed to take a 34-27 lead midway through the fourth quarter and their defense was able to hold the Leathernecks on their final two drives, giving CCU the win.
Finally, the teams met in 2017, Coastal’s first season in the FBS. At the time WIU was ranked #19 in the FCS and had a young freshman running back by the name of Clint Ratkovich. Western blew out the Chanticleer, 52-10, once again out-gaining CCU by 200 yards (510-307) and forcing four turnovers. Ratkovich would have one carry for three yards in the game.
Not the Norm
Unlike the Huskies, who are used to playing in weeknight #MACtion games and at neutral sites, the Chanticleers don’t have that same experience.
In their 18 year history, Coastal Carolina has only played in 16 non-Saturday games (six of which happened this season!). However, they have been very successful in those games, posting a 10-6 record, including a 5-1 record in the six games this season.
Neutral sites are also a vary rare occurrence for the Chants - having played in just ONE neutral site game all time. In fact, their first, and only other, neutral site game was last season’s Cure Bowl, which was a 37-34 overtime loss to Liberty at Camping World Stadium in Orlando. That means that currently 100% of their neutral site games have been played in Orlando for the Cure Bowl.
Be sure to watch the Huskies square off against the Chanticleers in the Cure Bowl this Friday night at 6 p.m. (5 p.m. CST). You can watch all the action live on ESPN2.