Teams: Northern Illinois vs. Fresno State
Date: Dec. 18, 2010 at 5:30 p.m. ET
Location: Bronco Stadium, Boise, Idaho
The second game of the bowl season will feature the 10-3 Northern Illinois Huskies from the MAC and the 8-4 Fresno State Bulldogs of the WAC. The Huskies will be looking for their first bowl win since a 34-21 victory over Troy in the 2004 Silicon Valley Classic. On the other side, Fresno State has played on the blue turf in the postseason previously, as they won a 40-28 decision over Georgia Tech in 2007 Humanitarian Bowl.
One of the main storylines of this contest will be coaching stability. After dropping a heartbreaker in the MAC Championship, Northern Illinois lost coach Jerry Kill (and both coordinators) to Minnesota. Interim head coach Tom Matukewicz will lead the Huskies in this game before Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Doeren takes over in DeKalb next season. Conversely, coach Pat Hill has been on the Bulldog sideline since 1997 and has led Fresno to four bowl wins in 10 postseason appearances during his tenure.
When Northern Illinois has the ball
The Huskies boast the seventh-ranked rushing attack in the nation, led by MAC Offensive Player of the Year Chad Spann. The senior running back topped the conference with 1,239 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground. Junior quarterback Chandler Harnish, another first-team All-MAC performer, was very efficient this season with 20 touchdown passes against only five interceptions. He also added 764 rushing yards and five scores which helped lead Northern Illinois to an average of 37.8 points per game, a total that ranked 13th in the country.
The Bulldogs struggled to stop the run for much of the season, finishing 65th in nation in that category. Despite beating Illinois in their last game, Fresno State gave up a staggering 318 rush yards to the Illini. Pat Hill’s crew, led by WAC Defensive Player of the Year Chris Carter, will have to be better than that against Spann and Harnish on Saturday. To make matters tougher, the Bulldogs have only forced 13 turnovers in 12 games this season. They will also play this game without suspended linebacker Kyle Knox, who was second on the team with 74 tackles.
When Fresno State has the ball
The Bulldogs are led by running back Robbie Rouse, who ranked 13th in the nation with an average of 109.7 rushing yards per contest despite missing two games with hand and rib injuries. He was not available for the season finale versus Illinois, but the dynamic sophomore practiced with the first team all week and should be good to go on Saturday. Senior quarterback Ryan Colburn was inconsistent during WAC play, but he did have four-touchdown pass games earlier in the season against Cincinnati and Ole Miss. He also threw for 304 yards and three scores in the Bulldogs’ victory over Illinois.
The Northern Illinois defense is led by all-conference performers Sean Progar at defensive end and Chris Smith at cornerback. The Huskies have been fairly solid against the run this season, but a healthy Rouse could provide a tough challenge. Northern Illinois only had 24 sacks in 13 games, but they did have a solid total of 16 interceptions this year. If the Huskies can keep Colburn from getting into a rhythm like he did against non-conference opponents this season, they should perform well on the ‘smurf turf’.
One area where Fresno State looks to have an advantage is in the kicking game. Kevin Goessling, the first-team All-WAC placekicker, made 20-of-24 field goals on the year including all 11 from less than 40 yards. Additionally, Andre Shapiro put 20 of his 56 punts inside the 20-yard line. However, one potential issue for the Bulldogs is that they gave up two kick returns, as well as one punt return, for touchdowns this season.
Northern Illinois has struggled with field goals this season, only making 17-of-28 attempts between two kickers. Additionally, the Huskies rated 105th in the country in net punting. Returner Tommy Davis averaged 23.6 yards on his 20 kick returns, including taking one all the way for a touchdown against Toledo.
Northern Illinois NCAA Rankings (out of 120 teams)
Rush Offense: 7 (264.8 ypg)
Pass Offense: 89 (181.2 ypg)
Scoring Offense: 13 (37.9 ppg)
Rush Defense: 27 (130.5 ypg)
Pass Defense: 35 (202.1 ypg)
Scoring Defense: T-16 (19.1 ypg)
Turnover Margin: 17 (+.77)
Fresno State NCAA Rankings (out of 120 teams)
Rush Offense: 55 (157 ypg)
Pass Offense: 67 (214.3 ypg)
Scoring Offense: 45 (30 ppg)
Rush Defense: 65 (154.8 ypg)
Pass Defense: 34 (201.2 ypg)
Scoring Defense: 79 (29.2 ppg)
Turnover Margin: 111 (-.83)
Prediction: Despite the coaching uncertainty, Northern Illinois appears to be the stronger team in this matchup. Pat Hill’s bunch has played a tougher schedule this season, but we’ll take the squad with the better overall running game and the vastly superior turnover margin.
Northern Illinois by 4