Boise State (8–4) vs. Northern Illinois (8–5)
Dec. 23, 4:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Reason to watch
Long before it was Houston or Temple or Toledo or Navy or Memphis, Boise State was supposed to be the non-Power 5 team most likely to finish the season undefeated and potentially make a playoff game. Those hopes were dashed when the Broncos lost in the final seconds to BYU in Week 2, but most still expected Bryan Harsin’s team to finish with 10 wins.
Instead, the Broncos stumble into the Poinsettia Bowl, losers of two of their last three games, down a starting quarterback and several members of their starting secondary. For a team commonly considered to be the best non-Power 5 team in the nation, Boise State had its first subpar season (by program standards) since Chris Petersen left to coach Washington after the 2013 season.
The Broncos get Northern Illinois, another traditional non-Power 5 power that also suffered quarterback injuries and a substandard season. While neither team showcased its usual prowess in 2015, both are traditionally two of the best-coached teams in the Group of Five.
Keep an eye on: Boise State running back Jeremy McNichols
McNichols is the dual-threat running back that’s become increasingly popular in spread offenses and the type that defensive coordinators must gameplan around. The rushing stats stand well on their own (1244 yards, 18 touchdowns, 5.6 yards per carry), but he’s also the Broncos’ fourth-leading receiver (364 yards, three touchdowns, 7.9 yards per catch). The sophomore running back relies on his shiftiness in crowded lanes and his explosiveness in the open field.
Did you know…?
The Poinsettia Bowl hasn’t treated either team very well historically. The Broncos lost to a TCU team led by quarterback Andy Dalton in 2008, the second and last bowl game Petersen lost as head coach of Boise State (he won his other five). Northern Illinois’s last trip to San Diego resulted in a loss to Utah State in ’13. Rod Carey seeks his first bowl win as coach of the Huskies, as he currently sits at 0–3 since inheriting the program in late ’12.
Northern Illinois has lost—prepare yourself—three starting quarterbacks over the course of the season, two to season-ending injuries. The Huskies were using a walk-on freshman (Tommy Fiedler) at one point. While it’ll be their original third-stringer (Ryan Graham) most likely under center, the inconsistency may be too much to overcome against an effective, if not dominant Boise State defense. What Northern Illinois does have going for it is its red-zone defense, which ranks 12th in the nation. If it can keep McNichols and top Broncos receiver Thomas Sperbeck out of the end zone, the Huskies can turn the game into a trench battle.
Nonetheless, despite its season-long struggles, Boise State will continue Carey’s bad luck in bowl games to salvage an otherwise disappointing season.