One of the first bowl games after Christmas features a solid ACC team against a traditionally strong MAC team. The Duke Blue Devils, with a 6-6 record, travel north up to Detroit to face the 8-4 Northern Illinois Huskies at Ford Field on Dec. 26.
After starting the season 4-0, Duke suffered a midseason swoon, losing six straight games. The Blue Devils bounced back, finishing the regular season with back-to-back wins over Georgia Tech and Wake Forest to gain bowl eligibility. Even during the losing streak, Duke was competitive in most of those games, usually losing by no more than a touchdown.
Northern Illinois comes into this game having lost its last time out, 31-24 to Central Michigan. Even with that loss, the Huskies come into this game confident that they can play with any upper-echelon team in college football. NIU lost a close at home to Boston College (23-20) in the season opener and upset Nebraska in Lincoln (21-17) on Sept. 16.
Quick Lane Bowl: Duke vs. Northern Illinois
Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 26 at 5:15 p.m. ET
Where: Ford Field (Detroit)
TV Channel: ESPN
Three Things to Watch
1. Northern Illinois' rushing offense vs. Duke's run defense
Jordan Huff was the pace setter for Northern Illinois during the regular season, leading the Huskies with 740 rushing yards and four touchdowns, but Huff will miss the bowl game due to surgery on his ankle. Quarterback Marcus Childers is second with 454 yards and a team-high five touchdowns on the ground. In Huff’s absence, Marcus Jones (347 yards, 3 TDs) will probably be called on to carry more of the load in the backfield. For the season, the Huskies are averaging 187 rushing yards per game. In their eight wins that number jumps to 200.8.
Duke has done a decent job against the run this season, holding teams to 160.6 rushing yards per game, which places the Blue Devils 58th in the nation. Duke had some struggles late in the season, surrendering 336 and 228 yards on the ground in seven-point losses to Pitt and Florida State, respectively. The Blue Devils also gave up 277 to Georgia Tech, but won that game handily (43-20). Northern Illinois will have to find a way to move the ball on the ground against Duke since this isn’t an offense used to beating teams through the air.
2. Duke's passing game vs. Northern Illinois' pass defense
Daniel Jones has had an up-and-down season leading the Blue Devils’ offense. The sophomore is completing 55.7 percent of his passes for 2,439 yards. He has thrown as many touchdown passes (12) as interceptions (11), which is why he ranks 12th in the ACC in passer rating (109.56). Jones’ primary target his season has been T.J. Rahming, a junior wide receiver who ranks in the top 10 in receptions (61) and yards (733) but has just one touchdown. The Huskies come into this game ranked in the middle of the pack of MAC teams against the pass. Even though NIU gives up a fair amount of yards through the air (215.8 ypg), the defense has recorded more interceptions (15) than touchdown passes allowed (14). Jones would be wise to pay particular attention to Huskies linebacker Jawuan Johnson. He leads the team with five interceptions, two of which he has returned for touchdowns.
Northern Illinois has another defensive playmaker in end Sutton Smith (above, right). The MAC Defensive Player of the Year and a Consensus All-American, Smith leads the nation with 14 sacks and 28.5 tackles for a loss. He will go up against a Duke offensive line that is giving up a little more than two sacks per game and a dual-threat quarterback in Jones, who is capable of getting out of the pocket and picking some yards with his legs. Smith doesn’t have to be the one to get Jones down to be effective, especially given the quarterback's struggles throwing the ball this season.
3. Which team wants it more?
Reports emerged after the matchup was announced that Northern Illinois' players were not entirely excited about going to the Quick Lane Bowl. Even Northern Illinois head coach Rod Carey admitted that there was some truth to these reports. "Everyone has dreams of bowl games being down South and on the beach and a great opponent... Well, we didn’t get that, but we still got a great opponent and a bowl game. We’ll attack it that way." Quite commonly, bowl games are won by the team that truly is excited to be there. This is one of those intangible factors that might be visible with the teams' respective body language on the sidelines and whether either or both teams get off to slow starts or seem flat.
Duke is coming into this game with the positive momentum, knowing that the 2017 season could have been even better, if not for the midseason losing streak that eliminated the Blue Devils from a better bowl destination. Northern Illinois is coming into this game with a sizable chip on its collective shoulders, as the Huskies believe they should have secured a better bowl destination. This one should be a close game, between two well-coached teams who will look to use this contest as a springboard into 2018.
Prediction: Duke 30, Northern Illinois 27
— Written by Chip Minnich, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He also is writing and podcasting for www.theozone.net. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMinnich.
(Sutton Smith photo courtesy of Getty Images)