The Boca Raton Bowl features a rare meeting of conference champions in the 2018-19 postseason, as UAB meets Northern Illinois on Tuesday night in FAU Stadium. And if the regular season finale for both teams is any indication of how this game might go, Tuesday night’s matchup certainly won’t lack for intrigue or excitement. The Blazers used a late penalty against MTSU to hold on for a 27-25 victory in Conference USA’s Championship, while the Huskies rallied in the fourth quarter against Buffalo to a claim a 30-29 win in the MAC title game.
UAB’s play on the gridiron has been one of college football’s best storylines over the last two years. The program was disbanded following the 2014 season but was later reinstated in ’15, with the team returning to the field and Conference USA play in ’17. The Blazers shattered preseason expectations with an 8-5 record last fall and capped the year with an appearance against Ohio in the Bahamas Bowl. Coach Bill Clark’s team was even better in 2018, finishing 10-3 overall with the program’s first Conference USA title. UAB also won 10 games for the first time in its program history, helping Clark earn Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year honors.
Success at a high level is nothing new to Northern Illinois. The Huskies have the most appearances of any school in the MAC in the conference title game, claimed four league titles since 2011 and made five bowl trips in six full years under coach Rod Carey. After a 5-7 mark in 2016, Northern Illinois has posted back-to-back 8-5 records and claimed the MAC title over Buffalo in dramatic fashion this year. After trailing 29-10 in third quarter, the Huskies scored 20 unanswered points to claim a 30-29 victory. Carey’s team faced a brutal non-conference schedule – Iowa, Utah and Florida State – but both losses in MAC play came by seven points or less.
This is the first meeting on the gridiron between Northern Illinois and UAB. The Huskies are 4-8 in bowl games, while the Blazers are 0-2.
Boca Raton Bowl: UAB (10-3) vs. Northern Illinois (8-5)
Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 18 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: UAB -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. UAB’s Ground Attack
It’s no secret what UAB wants to do on offense in this matchup. The Blazers ranked first in Conference USA with 587 rushing attempts and ranked second in the conference by averaging 208.9 rushing yards a game. Sophomore Spencer Brown is the catalyst for UAB’s ground attack, as he eclipsed 1,000 yards for the second consecutive year by ending the regular season with 1,149 yards and 16 scores. Brown is averaging 4.7 yards a carry and has just one run of 30 yards or more this season. Helping Brown’s cause as one of the top Group of 5 running backs in the nation is an offensive line featuring four senior starters, including first-team All-Conference USA selection Justice Powers. Rishard Cook, James Davis and Malique Johnson each earned second-team honors this season.
Production by Brown on early downs is going to be crucial for UAB on Tuesday night. The offense exceled at converting third-down attempts (44.3 percent success rate) in the regular season, but Northern Illinois has been stingy all year against the run. The Huskies rank first in the MAC in rush defense, limiting opponents to just 2.7 yards a carry and 109.7 yards a game. Additionally, Carey’s team allowed only one opponent (Iowa) to rush for more than 168 yards in a contest this fall. All-America end Sutton Smith (24.5) is the main disruptor, but he will have help from linebacker Antonio Jones-Davis (13.5 TFL) and fellow linemen Josh Corcoran (12.5) and Jack Heflin (8.0). Considering the talent off the edge with Smith and Corcoran, Brown and UAB’s ground game would be wise to pound away at the interior.
UAB’s passing game wasn’t prolific by any means, but quarterbacks A.J. Erdely and Tyler Johnston III made enough plays to keep the offense rolling this fall. Erdely connected on 56.1 percent of his passes for 1,539 yards and seven touchdowns. Johnston’s completion percentage was slightly higher (56.8), as he added 950 yards and seven scores through the air. The two quarterbacks combined for 15 picks in 2018. Erdely was banged up late in the year, allowing Johnston to start four out of the final five contests. All signs point to Johnston starting on Tuesday night, and the freshman will certainly have his hands full with a defense that is limiting teams to just 21.5 points a game and 4.6 yards a play. Receivers Xavier Ubosi (21.8 ypc), Andre Wilson (30 catches), Kailon Carter (22) and Collin Lisa (14) give Johnston a solid group of weapons with big-play ability on the outside.
In order for UAB to win on Tuesday night, it has to establish the run by giving Northern Illinois a heavy dose of its star running back (Brown). An x-factor to watch: Johnston’s mobility. The freshman rushed for 331 yards and four scores in the regular season and posted double-digit carries in three out of UAB’s last four games.
2. Northern Illinois’ Offense
Similar to UAB, Northern Illinois’ offense wants to lean on its run to setup the pass. The Huskies posted 553 carries to just 372 passing attempts in the regular season. Carey’s group wasn’t overly prolific on the scoreboard, as the offense averaged only 20.7 points a game and 4.6 yards a play. However, this unit showed signs of progress in the MAC title win over Buffalo. In the victory, Northern Illinois averaged 6.1 yards a play, recorded 23 first downs and threw for 300 yards (a season high) versus the Bulls. Additionally, the 409 total yards was the third-highest total for the Huskies all year. Can Carey’s team build off that performance?
While the Huskies are a run-first attack, this team doesn’t have a 1,000-yard rusher. Instead, a couple of players will tote the rock for Carey’s team, spreading the wealth in the NIU backfield. Tre Harbison needs just 15 yards to reach 1,000, as he leads the team with 985 yards through 13 games. Marcus Jones (523) and Jordan Nettles (215) are next up at running back, and quarterback Marcus Childers has chipped in 496 yards and leads the team with six rushing scores in ’18.
As mentioned above, Northern Illinois hopes the performance on offense from the MAC title game travels to Boca on Tuesday night. Childers’ 300 passing yards and four scores through the air were the most this offense has generated all year with its passing game. The sophomore has an experienced group of receivers at his disposal, including Jauan Wesley (49 catches), D.J. Brown (55) and Spencer Tears (34).
While there are reasons for Northern Illinois’ staff to be optimistic about its offense, UAB has been stingy all season on this side of the ball. The Blazers rank first in Conference USA in scoring defense (17.3), limit teams to 4.9 yards a play, rank second in the conference in pass efficiency defense and have generated 43 sacks in ’18. This unit is also holding teams to 3.5 yards a rush and less than 120 rushing yards a game. Jamell Garcia-Williams (9.5 sacks), Tre’ Crawford (8.0) and Quindarius Thagard (4.0) are the main disruptors up front for Clark and will be tasked with keeping the offense in check.
It may seem like a broken record, but we have to mention it again. Northern Illinois wants to run the ball, and Childers is a big part of that plan. However, considering UAB's strength up front, the Huskies will need to throw downfield with success on early downs to win this game.
3. Havoc Plays and Turnovers
There are several similarities between these two teams, so it’s no surprise the spread is right around a field goal. However, with a tight (and low-scoring) game anticipated, one play by the defense or a mistake on offense could be the deciding factor.
In the turnover department, UAB comes into this game with a minus-one ratio. The Blazers have generated 18 takeaways and lost 19 turnovers through 13 games. Northern Illinois is almost identical in this area. The Huskies have an even margin, losing 18 turnovers and gaining 18 this season.
The continuing similarities between these two teams continues with sacks generated. Northern Illinois leads the nation with 50 sacks, while UAB is tied for third nationally with 43. Smith has recorded 15 sacks, with Corcoran (10) also in double-digits. The Blazers are led by Garcia-Williams (9.5) and Crawford (8.0), but eight players have recorded at least two this season.
One defensive area where UAB owns a big edge is on third-down stops. The Blazers are limiting opponents to a 25 percent conversion rate, with the Huskies allowing 38.1 percent.
Points will be a premium on Tuesday night. Both teams are averaging under 30 points a contest and will bring two of the nation’s top defenses to Boca Raton. With the defensive prowess in this matchup, timely offense and mistakes are going to be magnified. Winning the turnover battle and converting third downs to keep drives alive will loom large. Can UAB’s offense consistently generate enough push on first downs to keep Johnston out of third-and-long situations? When Northern Illinois has the ball, can Childers pick up where he left off in the MAC title game? Expect a low-scoring game, but the Blazers add to the best season in school history with the program’s first bowl victory.
Prediction: UAB 24, Northern Illinois 20
(Top Spencer Brown photo courtesy of UABSports.com)