by Mark Ross
Arkansas State (10-2) vs. Northern Illinois (10-3)
Date: Jan. 8 at 9 p.m. ET
Location: Ladd Peebles Stadium, Mobile, Ala.
The second-to-last bowl on the 35-game slate may be completely overshadowed by the BCS Championship Game, which will take place the following night, but the GoDaddy.com Bowl in Mobile features one thing the Alabama vs. LSU tilt in nearby New Orleans doesn’t — a matchup of conference champions.
Sun Belt champion Arkansas State has already posted the most wins in a season since 1986, and back then the Red Wolves were playing in Division I-AA, which is now known as the FCS level. The Red Wolves are the first team in the Sun Belt’s 11-year history to win 10 regular-season games. This will be their first bowl game since 2005 and they come into this game with a nine-game winning streak.
Mid-American Conference (MAC) champion Northern Illinois is making its fourth straight bowl appearance and has won 10 or more games in consecutive seasons. The Huskies defeated Fresno State 40-17 in last year’s Humanitarian Bowl for their school-record 11th win. They have a chance to tie that mark if they defeat Arkansas State, which would represent their ninth straight victory.
Both schools won their respective conference titles under the direction of first-year head coaches, Hugh Freeze for Arkansas State and Dave Doeren for Northern Illinois. However, only Doeren will be coaching in his first bowl game, as Freeze was named the new head coach of Ole Miss on Dec. 5.
Arkansas State tabbed former Auburn offensive coordinator, as well as former Springdale (Ark.) High School head coach and Arkansas offensive coordinator, Gus Malzahn to be its new head coach. Interim head coach David Gunn will lead the Red Wolves in the bowl game and stay on as an assistant under Malzahn in 2012.
Both teams feature potent offenses that are averaging more than 33 points per game led by dual-threat quarterbacks who are among the top 10 in the nation in total offense. Arkansas State’s defense is statistically better across the board, but other than Virginia Tech, the Red Wolves have yet to face an offense like Northern Illinois’.
Each team had a shot earlier in the season against a ranked opponent that played in a BCS bowl and each came up short. Arkansas State held its own against the Hokies, who lost in the Sugar Bowl to Michigan, losing 26-7 in Blacksburg, Va., while Northern Illinois hosted head coach Doeren’s previous employer, Wisconsin, and got trounced by the Badgers, who fell in the Rose Bowl to Oregon, 49-7.
WHEN ARKANSAS STATE HAS THE BALL:
For Arkansas State, the offense begins and pretty much ends with quarterback Ryan Aplin. The junior was named Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year after compiling a school-record 3,840 total yards of offense, which also represents the second-most in conference history. Aplin comes into this game ranked 10th in the nation in total offense, averaging 320.0 yards per game.
Aplin has completed a school-record 274 passes for 3,235 yards with 18 touchdowns. He has completed 66 percent of his passes so far and thrown 13 interceptions.
Besides his passing numbers, Aplin also is the team’s leading rusher with 605 yards and nine touchdowns. Seven different Red Wolves have carried the ball at least 16 times this season and scored a rushing touchdown.
After Aplin, the second-most carries have gone to senior Derek Lawson, who has 459 yards and three touchdowns. Freshman Frankie Jackson has contributed six rushing touchdowns to the Red Wolves’ ground attack.
Dwayne Frampton is Aplin’s clear-cut No. 1 target, leading the team with 90 catches, 1,125 yards and six touchdowns. The senior was named first team All-Sun Belt and also returns punts.
Besides Frampton, the Red Wolves have juniors Josh Jarboe and Taylor Stockemer, who have combined for 89 receptions, 1,278 yards and eight touchdowns. Jarboe was named to the All-Sun Belt second team and Stockemer tied Frampton with six touchdown catches. All told, 18 different Red Wolves, including Aplin, have caught at least one pass this season.
Arkansas State averages 33.5 points per game and has scored 30 or more in its last six games. During this steak, Aplin has averaged 336.2 yards of total offense, In the Red Wolves’ two losses, to Illinois to open the season and to Virginia Tech, Aplin averaged just 267.5 yards of total offense.
Northern Illinois’ defense comes into this game surrendering an average of 417.9 yards and 31.1 points per game. The Huskies will need to do a better job across the board defensively if they hope to limit Aplin and the rest of the Red Wolves.
WHEN NORTHERN ILLINOIS HAS THE BALL:
While Arkasas State has Aplin, Northern Illinois has its own dangerous, record-setting dual-threat quarterback in Chandler Harnish. The senior was named the MAC’s top player after leading the Huskies to their second-ever conference championship and first since 1983 by directing the largest comeback in school history. Harnish and Northern Illinois came back from 20-0 deficit in the third quarter to defeat Ohio 23-20 in the MAC Championship Game.
Harnsih, who already holds 23 school single-season and career passing and total offense records, is 19-5 as the Huskies’ starter the past two seasons. He currently ranks eighth in the nation in total offense, averaging 332.6 yards per game.
Harnish has rushed for nearly 1,400 yards this season, averaging 7.5 yards per carry in the process. His 106.3 yards per game ranks him No. 18 in the nation in rushing. He has four games with 150 rushing yards or more, including two where he rushed for 200 yards or more.
Harnish is just as dangerous with his arm, as he has thrown for 2,942 yards with 26 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He is ranked as the 13th-most efficient passer in the nation and combined with his 11 rushing touchdowns; he has been responsible for a total of 37 touchdowns this season.
Harnish needs just 14 yards rushing in the bowl game to become only the third quarterback in FBS history to rush for 3,000 yards and pass for 8,000 in a career. To this point, Harnish has 2,986 rushing yards and 8,670 passing yards. He’s also been responsible for a total of 90 touchdowns (66 passing, 24 rushing) to this point.
As a team, Northern Illinois is averaging 247.6 yards rushing per game, which ranks the Huskies ninth in the nation, and an impressive 5.7 yards per carry. After Harnish, the Huskies’ top rusher is senior Jasmin Hopkins, who could be a 1,000-yard rusher in his own right. Hopkins enters the bowl game needing just 68 more yards to reach the mark and he leads the team with 16 total touchdowns.
Harnish likes to spread the ball around to his receivers as 16 different Huskies have caught at least one pass and 10 have scored. The team’s leading receiver is Nathan Palmer, who is tops in receptions (46), yards (683) and touchdowns (7). The senior was named the MVP of the MAC Championship Game after scoring two touchdowns and amassing 132 all-purpose yards in the Huskies’ comeback win.
Northern Illinois’ offensive line is an experienced group, consisting of four seniors and a junior. The line features two first team All-MAC performers in senior center Scott Wedige and senior left tackle Trevor Olson. Olson has started 52 consecutive games and has yet to allow a sack this season.
The line is a big reason why the Huskies rank among the top 10 in the nation in total offense (10th with 481.8 yards per game), rushing (ninth) and fewest sacks allowed (fifth with just nine total through 13 games).
The Huskies’ offensive line will need to maintain its consistent play in the bowl game as it will be facing an Arkansas State defense that ranks 17th in the nation in sacks with 2.7 per game. Leading the way for the Red Wolves is senior defensive lineman Brandon Joiner, who was named Sun Belt Conference Defensive Player of the Year after racking up 12 sacks, the fifth-highest total in the country. Joiner also has 15.5 tackles for loss this season as the Red Wolves average more than seven stops behind the line per game, which ranks them 12th overall.
Arkansas State’s defense ranks among the top 20 in the nation in total defense (20th), scoring defense (15th), rush defense (15th) and pass efficiency defense (17th). Illinois and Virginia Tech are the only two teams that had more than 400 total yards of offense against the Red Wolves, and Northern Illinois is certainly capable of doing that much and more. It will be interesting to see if Joiner and fellow seniors linebacker Demario Davis and defensive backs Darryl Feemster and Kelcie McCray, who all made first team All-Sun Belt, will be able to contain Harnish and the Huskies.
With two high-powered offenses in tow, neither team needs to rely that heavily on their respective return units, and the statistics support this. Northern Illinois has three return touchdowns, including two on kickoffs by Tommylee Lewis, while Arkansas State ranks 102nd out of 120 teams in FBS in kickoff returns.
Northern Illinois’ Mathew Sims has already set a school-record with 116 points this season, with more than half of that damage coming via PAT (59 of 61). Sims, a first team All-MAC selection, has been pretty accurate on his field goals, making 19 of 24, but he is just 3 of 6 from 40 yards and beyond.
Arkansas State employs somewhat of a committee when it comes to its placekicking duties. Brian Davis has handled all of the PATs and is 16 of 21 in field goal attempts, while Bobby Zalud is 6 of 11, with all of his attempts coming from 40 yards and out.
In the GoDaddy.com Bowl’s 12-year history (first named the Mobile Alabama Bowl and then GMAC Bowl prior to changing name to GoDaddy.com Bowl last year), the winning team has scored at least 28 points. Considering both Arkansas State and Northern Illinois come in averaging more than 33 points per game, there’s a chance this one could look a lot like the 2001 game that saw Marshall beat East Carolina 64-61 in double overtime.
Whether that happens or not, will depend primarily on one thing, how Arkansas State’s defense, which is ranked among the top 20 in the nation in several categories, handles Northern Illinois’ high-powered offense. The Red Wolves’ offense should do plenty of damage of its own against the Huskies’ susceptible defense.
However, as was mentioned earlier, Arkansas State, outside of Virginia Tech, hasn’t faced an offense like Northern Illinois’, and in the end the experienced Huskies’ offense led by their record-setting dual-threat quarterback Harnish and a veteran offensive line, will prove to be more than the Red Wolves can handle.
This is a good time for Arkansas State football, with a Sun Belt championship under its belt and native son Malzahn ready to assume the reigns, but this season will end on a losing note as Harnish and the Huskies’ senior class will end their careers with one final victory.
Northern Illinois 38, Arkansas State 34