Boise St.-N. Illinois Preview
Though neither resides in a power conference, Boise State and Northern Illinois have been two of college football's winningest programs this decade.
While both perhaps underachieved in terms of their usual high standards this year, the Broncos and Huskies finally meet Wednesday in the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego.
Since 2010, only Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State have more victories than Northern Illinois, which ties Stanford and Michigan State with 65 in that span. A non-power conference darling even longer, Boise State (8-4) is right behind with 63.
"Boise State and Northern Illinois have been at the top or near the top of their conferences for many years now," said Mark Neville, the executive director of the San Diego Bowl Games. "They both play a very exciting brand of football that will be fun to watch."
Each school has busted the BCS in the last 10 years, with the Broncos beating Oklahoma and TCU in the Fiesta Bowl, while NIU (8-5) lost to Florida State in the Orange Bowl following the 2012 season.
Though Boise State won't win 10 games for the second time in three seasons, it's making a 14th straight bowl appearance. The Huskies are in their eighth consecutive bowl despite failing to post double-digit victories for the first time since 2009.
"What I am really looking forward to is the opportunity for our team to take on Boise State," NIU athletic director Sean Frazier said. "(It's) one of the premiere programs in the nation this decade, and a model program to emulate based on their body of work.
"We really couldn't ask for a better matchup."
However, it might not be a very competitive one if the Huskies can't get healthy at the quarterback position - or at least improve in that area.
NIU reached the Mid-American Conference championship game for a sixth straight season but lost 34-14 to Bowling Green with third-string true freshman Tommy Fiedler under center. NIU starter Drew Hare ruptured his Achilles' during a 32-27 win at then-No. 20 Toledo on Nov. 30 and backup Ryan Graham suffered a leg injury in the five-point loss to Ohio in the regular-season finale.
After scoring at least 27 points and averaging 518.7 yards during a five-game winning streak, the Huskies totaled 35 and gained 587 against Ohio and Bowling Green. If Graham, who has thrown for 622 yards with six touchdowns and run for 140 since replacing Hare, can't return for this contest, NIU's task becomes significantly tougher.
In two games, Fiedler went 21 of 45 for 265 yards with two touchdowns. He threw all three of his interceptions and was sacked four times against Bowling Green.
Joel Bouagnon led the MAC with 1,269 rushing yards and is tied for fifth in the FBS with 18 rushing TDs, but he's scored once while averaging 54.7 in the last three contests.
"There's no 'Whoa is me,'" coach Rod Carey said. "There's none of that going on."
But the order is tall against a Boise State defense that's 24th in the FBS with 342.1 yards allowed per game, 26th at 21.3 points and third with 22 interceptions. After giving up 68 points in back-to-back losses to New Mexico and Air Force, the Broncos rebounded with a 40-23 win at San Jose State to end the regular season.
Though Boise State would seem to have the advantage against a NIU offense that's in flux, coach Bryan Harsin won't allow his team to take anything for granted.
"We've got to put in the work, put in the time and be prepared," he said. "You know (NIU) knows how to win and they have a culture of winning. Our guys are excited."
Boise State also has an exciting offense that ranks 16th in scoring at 37.8 points per game and 18th with 488.6 total yards per contest.
Sophomore Jeremy McNichols averaged 5.6 yards per carry while rushing for 1,244 and 18 TDs. He's averaged 138.7 yards and scored 10 times over the last seven contests.
Brett Rypien, the nephew of former NFL quarterback Mark Rypien, was named Mountain West Conference freshman of the year after throwing for 2,973 yards and 17 TDS. He's gone four of the last five games without throwing an interception.
That could change against a NIU defense that's right behind the Broncos nationally with 21 interceptions. All-MAC cornerback Shawun Lurry is tied for the national lead with nine. He picked off a pair of passes during the Huskies' near upset of then-No. 1 Ohio State on Sept. 19, and returned an interception for a score in the league title game.
Looking to avoid a fourth consecutive bowl defeat, NIU dropped to 0-2 in the Poinsettia Bowl with a 21-14 loss to Utah State two years ago.
Boise State, which has won five of its last six bowl games, fell 17-16 to TCU in the 2008 edition of this one.