Marshall and Northern Illinois were each on the cusp of an appearance in a bigger bowl game, but the two programs meet for the first time since 2001 in the inaugural Boca Raton Bowl. The Thundering Herd and Huskies were two of the nation’s top teams from the Group of 5 conferences and were in contention for a spot in one of college football’s top bowl games until Boise State was picked for that designation after it defeated Fresno State in the Mountain West Championship. Marshall and Northern Illinois combined for 23 wins this season, and Tuesday night’s matchup is only the third bowl game (Rose, Sugar and Boca Raton) where both teams are conference champions.
Marshall cruised to an 11-0 start but lost by a point in overtime to Western Kentucky on the final weekend of action in November. Even though the loss to the Hilltoppers ended the Thundering Herd’s hopes of a perfect season, coach Doc Holliday’s team won 10 of their 13 games by at least 15 points and claimed their first conference title since 2002. Northern Illinois continued to dominate the MAC by recording its fifth season of at least 11 victories and won its third conference championship in four years by defeating Bowling Green 51-17.
Marshall and Northern Illinois have played in seven previous meetings. The Huskies own a 4-3 edge over the Thundering Herd, but these two programs have not played since 2001. Northern Illinois has won the last two matchups between these two teams.
Marshall vs. Northern Illinois
Kickoff: 6 p.m. ET (Tuesday, Dec. 23)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Marshall -10
Marshall’s Key to Victory: QB Rakeem Cato
The keys to victory in the Boca Raton Bowl are essentially tied together. It might be too simplistic to just list Cato here, but the senior is the catalyst for Marshall’s offense and one of the top quarterbacks in the nation. Cato threw for 37 touchdowns and 3,622 yards this season and added 457 yards and six scores on the ground. The senior threw for 725 yards over his last two games and faces a stiff test against a Northern Illinois defense limiting opponents to 5.4 yards per play and 23.6 points per game. The Huskies also led the MAC with 30 sacks and forced 24 turnovers. Despite losing standout safety Jimmie Ward to the NFL, this defense remained stingy and no opponent over the last six games scored more than 24 points. Cato has done a good job of limiting mistakes all season, but in Marshall’s only loss of the year (Western Kentucky), he tossed four interceptions. Northern Illinois relies heavily on its ground attack to carry the offense and coming back from 14-0 or a 17-3 deficit could be difficult. Cato is surrounded by an array of weapons, including receivers Tommy Shuler, Davonte Allen, Angelo Jean-Louis and tight end Eric Frohnapfel. In addition to the explosive passing offense, the Thundering Herd has balance with the emergence of converted tight end Devon Johnson at running back. Johnson rushed for 1,636 yards and 16 touchdowns this season. Marshall’s offense is the best Northern Illinois has played this year. If Cato doesn’t turn the ball over and the offensive line gives their senior quarterback time to throw, the Thundering Herd can enforce their style of play and create plenty of problems for the Huskies defense.
Northern Illinois’ Key to Victory: Establish the Run
As we mentioned above, the keys to the game go hand-in-hand. Northern Illinois has a tough assignment on defense trying to slow down the explosive Marshall offense. However, the Huskies can help their defense by establishing their style of play. Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey doesn’t have a standout like Jordan Lynch at quarterback, but new starter Drew Hare threw for 17 touchdowns to only two picks and rushed for 850 yards and eight scores in 2014. Hare only had one game of more than 250 passing yards, and it’s clear the offensive identity of Carey’s team rests with the ground game. In addition to Hare, senior running backs Cameron Stingily and Akeem Daniels and sophomore Joel Bouagnon will each play a significant role on the ground. Stingily led the team with 895 yards and 13 rushing scores this season and will challenge a Marshall defense that ranked ninth in Conference USA (league-only games) against the run. In nine C-USA contests, the Thundering Herd gave up 182.9 yards per game and allowed four yards per carry. Northern Illinois has to win the battle at the point of attack and keep Hare in third-and-short situations. The Huskies’ best shot at winning is to keep Marshall’s offense on the sidelines and allow their ground attack to control the pace of the game.
There’s no shortage of intrigue in the inaugural Boca Raton Bowl. Marshall and Northern Illinois are two of the nation’s top Group of 5 teams and this could be a high-scoring affair if both offenses get on track. The Thundering Herd would prefer to push the tempo and force the Huskies to get away from the ground attack. For Northern Illinois, it’s all about winning the battle on the line of scrimmage and finding a way to keep Cato and the Marshall offense on the sidelines. Expect both teams to have success in establishing their style of play, but the Thundering Herd’s offense is too much for the Huskies.