WHO: Northern Illinois (11-2) vs. Marshall (12-1)
WHAT: The inaugural Boca Raton Bowl
WHERE: FAU Stadium, Boca Raton, Florida
WHEN: 6:00 p.m. ET Dec. 23 on ESPN
THE SKINNY: The brand new Boca Raton Bowl has quite the match-up of non-power conference champions. The champions of Conference USA (Marshall) and the MAC (Northern Illinois) should provide for a good, quality game. For Marshall, it may be one last attempt to prove itself to be the top non-power conference champion after passed over by Boise State for a spot in the New Years Six line-up. Marshall and NIU combined for a record of 23-3 this season.
Marshall’s offense centers around the veteran quarterback Rakeem Cato. Cato should be able to find his targets — Tommy Shuler and Davonte Allen are his top two receivers — against NIU’s secondary, which ranks 64th in the nation in pass defense. Cato may have to extend some plays with his feet though, as NIU should be expected to bring pressure in the backfield. NIU recorded 30 sacks this season, but they go up against a Marshall offensive line that has done well in protecting their quarterback. Cato may have to extend some plays with his feet at times. Fortunately for the Conference USA champions and head coach Doc Holliday, this is something Cato does well. Cato has rushed for 457 yards and six touchdowns this season.
Marshall went 3-0 against the MAC this season with wins against Miami, Ohio and Akron, but NIU will be the biggest test for the Thundering Herd. NIU started the season off a little bit on a slow note as they looked to replace Jordan Lynch, but the Huskies ended the season hitting their stride at a very good time. Drew Hare has come along as a dual-threat player under center, but the running game is powered mostly by Cameron Stingily, a tough and physical back with the ability to wear down Marshall’s defense.
Marshall has won three straight bowl games dating back to 2009. The Huskies of NIU are looking to snap a two-game losing streak in postseason bowl action. Head coach Rod Carey is 0-2 in bowl games, including one Orange Bowl loss to Florida State in an interim role at the end of the 2012 season after Dave Doeren left the Huskies for NC State.
THE PREDICTION: NIU 34, Marshall 31