The San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl (say that five times fast, I dare you) offers up two well-respected Group of 5 programs in Boise State and Northern Illinois. Unfortunately for both, the 2015 season did not end as positively as it began.
Northern Illinois comes into the game with an 8-5 record. The Huskies played well at the beginning of the season, giving Power 5 teams such as Ohio State (20-13 loss in Ohio Stadium) and Boston College (17-14 loss in Alumni Stadium) all they could handle. Northern Illinois won the MAC West Division and faced Bowling Green in the conference championship game, but was unable to stay close to the Falcons, losing 34-14. Northern Illinois essentially limped to the finishing line, due to significant injuries sustained at the quarterback position to starter Drew Hare and backup Ryan Graham.
Boise State (8-4) entered the 2015 season with higher aspirations. Looking at a favorable schedule, the Broncos were considered to be one of the top contenders to serve as the Group of 5 New Year’s Six representative. Bryan Harsin’s team began the season on a high note, defeating Washington 16-13 in the opener. But any momentum was gone shortly after as Boise State lost 35-24 the following week to BYU in Provo, Utah. Then in the middle of November, back-to-back losses to New Mexico (31-24) and Air Force (27-20) removed any shot of winning the Mountain West Mountain Division. What’s worse, the shocking loss to the Lobos snapped the Broncos 18-game winning streak (nation’s second longest active one at the time) on the famed blue turf.
Boise State vs. Northern Illinois
Kickoff: 4:30 p.m. ET (Wednesday)
Spread: Boise State -8.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Boise State RB Jeremy McNichols vs. Northern Illinois defense
McNichols is the linchpin of the Broncos’ offense, as he has rushed for 1,244 yards. His 18 rushing touchdowns led the Mountain West and currently have him tied for fifth in all of FBS. The sophomore also has shown to be a reliable receiving option, as he is third on the team with 46 catches for 364 yards. McNichols’ total of 23 touchdowns has him tied with Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry for the most in the nation this season. There’s little doubt that stopping McNichols will be one of the Huskies’ top priorities on defense.
2. Northern Illinois RB Joel Bouagnon vs. Boise State defense
In many ways, Bouagnon is just as key for the Huskies’ offense as Jeremy McNichols is for the Broncos. Unlike McNichols, who is listed at 5-foot-9, 205 pounds, Bouagnon (6-2, 226) is the stereotypical Midwestern back who wears opposing defenses down with a physical running style. Bouagnon led the MAC with 1,270 yards rushing and he also has scored 18 times on the ground. Bouagnon has chipped in 13 receptions out of the backfield, but with five other Huskies who have at least 19 catches, he’s not as involved in the passing game for his team as McNichols is for Boise State. Still, if Bouagnon can have success against the Broncos’ 13th-ranked rushing defense (117.7 ypg) it should only open the Huskies’ passing game more.
3. Boise State QB Brett Rypien
The nephew of former Washington Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien, Brett Rypien was the Mountain West Freshman of the Year and first-team all-conference. Rypien enters this game with 2,976 yards passing and 17 touchdowns. He has thrown just seven interceptions in 10 games and six of those came in losses to Utah State and New Mexico. The true freshman has been steady all season and it will be interesting to see how he fares against Northern Illinois. The Huskies are in the middle of the pack among FBS teams in passing defense (tied for 78th, 223.4 ypg) but have just as many interceptions (21) as TD passes allowed (22).
So often in bowl games, it truly depends on which team is excited to be there. As stated above, both Boise State and Northern Illinois enter this contest feeling somewhat disappointed in how their respective seasons concluded. Given all of the injuries the Huskies have had to deal with, especially at quarterback, the edge appears to be in the Broncos’ favor. Northern Illinois will put up a fight, but Brett Rypien and the Boise State offense have too much firepower in the end.
Prediction: Boise State 35, Northern Illinois 21
— Written by Chip Minnich, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a diehard Ohio State fan. Minnich also writes and podcasts for menofthescarletandgray.com, a site dedicated to Ohio sports with a special emphasis on the Buckeyes. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMinnich.
(Brett Rypien photo courtesy of Boise State media relations; Joel Bouagnon photo courtesy of Scott Walstrom, NIU Photography.)