Marshall-N. Illinois Preview
Though Marshall won't face a major-conference opponent as some of its fans had hoped, the school believes there's more to be gained from playing perennial Mid-American Conference power Northern Illinois.
In the only non-"New Year's Six" matchup to feature a pair of conference champions, the Thundering Herd look to keep the Huskies from an eighth straight victory Tuesday night in the inaugural Boca Raton Bowl.
A wild 67-66 overtime loss to Western Kentucky on Nov. 28 ended Marshall's bid for a perfect season and ultimately kept it from being the one team from the "Group of Five" mid-major conferences to make a College Football Playoff selection committee bowl.
After the Herd (12-1) rallied to win 26-23 over Louisiana Tech in the Conference USA championship game, the school felt its best option was to face NIU (11-2) in Florida rather than explore a potential matchup with a lower-tier, power-conference team in another league-affiliated bowl.
"We indicated to Conference USA, who makes the ultimate decision, that we would like to play the best possible opponent and that is what we received in Northern Illinois," Marshall athletic director Mike Hamrick said. "NIU has been one of the elite 'Group of Five' schools this season."
Some Marshall fans took to social media to voice their displeasure with the school's decision, especially after the Herd had three MAC teams and no power-conference opponents on their 2013 schedule.
"Any negativity towards that is, to me, an insult to these players, is an insult to this coach, is an insult to me and is an insult to this university," Hamrick said.
Marshall finds itself with a good opportunity to cap an already special season by beating a NIU program that's won 57 games in five years, three of the last four MAC titles and busted the BCS with an Orange Bowl appearance two seasons ago.
The Huskies, who are 3-0 against Big Ten programs since the start of last season, are excited to face Marshall.
"You're going to have two conference champions going at it, it's an unbelievable matchup," coach Rod Carey said. "We have a ton of respect for Marshall and what they have done this year."
Looking to avoid a third straight bowl loss, NIU doesn't face an easy task against a Marshall offense that ranks second in the FBS with 563.4 yards per game and fifth in scoring (45.1 ppg).
Marshall senior and Miami native Rakeem Cato ends his collegiate career looking to match the NCAA record with a touchdown pass in his 46th straight game. Cato holds all of the school's career passing records, including 13,798 yards and 128 touchdowns.
He was the 12th-rated passer (155.2) in the FBS this season, throwing for 3,622 yards with 37 TDs and 13 interceptions, while rushing for 457 yards with six scores.
"That kid has meant so much to this program," coach Doc Holliday told Marshall's official website. "He's the quarterback who got it back to where it belonged, where it needs to be."
Marshall also boasts the sixth-leading rusher in the FBS in Devon Johnson, who ran for 1,636 yards on 8.6 per carry - third-best nationally. However, it's uncertain how much a knee injury that limited Johnson to seven carries for 63 yards in the last two games will hamper him in this contest.
Northern Illinois has been better against the run lately, yielding 215 yards in the past two games on 2.8 per carry, after allowing an average of 217.8 during a six-game stretch.
The Huskies have given up 19.0 points per game in the last six and forced 10 turnovers in the last two. Four of those came while holding Bowling Green to 287 yards in a 51-17 victory in the MAC title game.
"This was our best game to date, at the right time," Carey said. "Now that we know how to do it, we got another one yet."
Following in the footsteps of 2013 Heisman Trophy finalist Jordan Lynch, sophomore quarterback Drew Hare has done a solid job. He's thrown for 17 touchdowns with just two interceptions, and his legs have keyed the Huskies' seven-game win streak as he's rushed for 615 yards and six scores.
"He never once tried to be anybody but Drew," Carey said. "And that's what he had to do to be successful. And he's kept getting better a little bit at a time."
Bruising senior running back Cameron Stingily followed his 1,119-yard 2013 season by gaining a team-leading 895 and scoring 13 TDs.
Containing an NIU offense that ranks eighth in the FBS with 3,288 rushing yards could be a difficult task for the Herd, who have allowed an average of 207.7 on the ground in the last three games.
Meeting for the first time since 2001, NIU is 4-3 versus Marshall but has lost the last two.