Northern Illinois (10-3) vs. Fresno State (8-4)Dec. 18, 5:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Reason to watch: The blue turf will get a workout with running backs Chad Spann and Robbie Rouse duking it out. Northern Illinois' Spann earned MAC Offensive Player of the Year honors by rushing for 1,293 yards and 20 touchdowns during his senior season and headlines a ground game that ranks seventh nationally with 264.7 yards per game. Fresno State sophomore Rouse, meanwhile, averaged 109.7 yards per game (13th nationally) and twice rushed for at least 217 yards. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better tailback battle in bowls featuring two teams from non-BCS conferences.
Keep an eye on: How Northern Illinois responds to heartbreak. First, the Huskies lost the MAC title game. Then coach Jerry Kill shocked his players by taking the Minnesota job two days later. Replacement Dave Doeren won't take over until he completes his duties as Wisconsin's defensive coordinator in the Rose Bowl, leaving the task of keeping the Huskies together to linebackers coach Tom Matukewicz. The Huskies are seeking their first 11-win season in school history, but will have to get over losing their leader.
Did you know: Like most bowls, the Humanitarian requires schools to purchase a specific amount of tickets. But the longest running cold-weather bowl also asks its participants to provide their own corporate sponsorship. The practice has cost the Humanitarian a BCS conference school in the past. It's worth noting this was also mandatory for the now defunct Silicon Valley Football Classic.
Final analysis: Losing Kill was stunning, but this is a veteran Huskies group that should come together and feast on a Bulldogs defense that's been susceptible against the run. In three games against teams ranked in the top 20 in the nation in rushing, Fresno State has given up 329.3 yards and 37.6 points. Those numbers aren't likely to improve with linebacker Kyle Knox, the team's second-leading tackler, not making the trip. Kill has led Northern Illinois to three straight bowls, but he won't be on the sidelines when the Huskies finally register a win.
The pick: Northern Illinois 31, Fresno State 27
SI.com NFL draft analyst Tony Pauline shares his thoughts on the top pro prospects in this matchup:
Northern Illinois: RB Chad Spann -- The diminutive Spann is drawing comparisons to Darren Sproles of the San Diego Chargers. Spann plays with incredible quickness and toughness and creates his own yards. He projects as a third-down back and special teams player at the next level. Grade: Seventh-round prospect.
Fresno State: DE/OLB Chris Carter -- Carter, one of college footballs premiere pass rushers, is one of the hidden gems of this senior class. He's fast up the field, makes a lot of plays behind the line of scrimmage and has the speed to pursue the action laterally. Several scouts compare Carter to TCU star Jerry Hughes, while others think he'll make the move to outside linebacker in the NFL. Grade: Fourth-round prospect.
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