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
Marshall trailed early on the road against FIU on Saturday, but quarterback Rakeem Cato still led the Thundering Herd to a win to remain undefeated. He did so while making some history as well. Cato’s first of four touchdowns on Saturday set the NCAA record for most consecutive games with a touchdown pass. Saturday’s game was the 39th straight game Cato has thrown a touchdown. The record (38 games) was previously held by Russell Wilson of NC State and Wisconsin.
”It was a team effort for all 39 games and we still got more games to play,” Cato said after the 45-13 victory. ”We’ve got to keep finding a way to find seven points.”
Through seven games, Cato has passed for 1,912 yards and 19 touchdowns with six interceptions. His play is a large reason why Marshall is one of the four remaining undefeated teams and also why Marshall will remain in the hunt for an access bowl spot among the Group of Five contenders. East Carolina likely still has the edge in that category, and Colorado State has a pretty decent case as well.
There will be some talk that Heisman Trophy voters should be paying attention to what Cato has done as a result of this record, but keep in mind the Heisman Trophy is an annual award and not a career achievement award. That said, Cato is piling up some huge numbers, but his odds of being recognized by the Heisman voters are still slim due to the level of competition Cato is facing. This is not a slight on Cato’s achievements, but more so a dose of reality. Cato may have a shot to be invited to the Heisman presentation in New York if he keeps this up, but in the end he will have as realistic a chance to win the Heisman as players like quarterback Kellen Moore of Boise State or former Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch.
But he sure is darn fun to watch.
What was supposed to be a memorable night honoring BYU legend Jim McMahon turned sour in a hurry late in the first half. Utah State (3-2) scored 21 points in the final five minutes of the first half and No. 18 BYU (4-1) lost quarterback Taysom Hill for the rest of the season to a broken leg suffered just before halftime. Utah State snapped BYU’s big bowl dreams with a 35-20 victory in Provo Friday night.
Hill was looking like a Heisman candidate, offering the same sort of season Northern Illinois had seen with Jordan Lynch in recent seasons. Hill suffered the injury when attempting to roll out to the sideline on a second-and-long. His leg was rolled on in a tackle attempt by Utah State’s Brian Suite. The irony of the injury was it was Suite who was involved in a play that ended Hill’s 2012 season as well.
After the game BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall said Hill will undergo surgery today. It is expected to take three or four months for Hill to recover from the injury, meaning we have seen the last of Hill on the football field this season.
Utah State was already taking control of the game when Hill went down. The Aggies had just tied the game at 14-14 late in the first half when a botched exchange between Hill and BYU running back Jamaal Williams was recovered by Utah State on BYU’s first play from scrimmage of the ensuing possession. The Aggies went right for the end zone with a 22-yard pass from Darell Garretson to Devonte Robinson for a 21-14 lead. BYU’s next drive lost momentum when Hill was taken off the field with the injury. The Cougars punted and Utah State took over for one last possession starting from their 13-yard line, but on first down from the 28-yard line Garretson launched a deep pass down the right sideline to Hunter Sharp, who took it 72 yards for a touchdown, giving Utah State a commanding, and deflating 28-14 into the half. This all happened in a span of three and a half minutes, but it must have felt like an eternity for BYU.
Utah State, now without their star quarterback Chuckie Keeton for the remainder of the year, scored a major victory for the program. This was not a conference game, but the Aggies won their first game on the road this season and now look to have some confidence to move through Mountain West Conference play moving forward. Last year Utah State advanced to the conference championship game without Keeton, and if Friday night was any indication, these Aggies have what it takes to make a return trip to the conference championship game again.
BYU’s bowl picture is pretty simple. The Cougars are locked into a trip to the Miami Beach Bowl as long as they qualify for bowl eligibility. BYU only needs two more wins to become bowl eligible, which still should be a lock even without Hill. But the season started off so strong for BYU and the Cougars were making a case to be considered for a New Years Bowl slot if things continued to develop the way it seemed they could. BYU likely needed to run the table for that to be the case though, which means BYU will likely be sticking with the Miami Beach Bowl.
Northern Illinois wide receiver Tommylee Lewis will be out for the remainder of the 2014 season due to a lower-body injury suffered in the game. Head coach Rod Carey confirmed the injury report via a statement issued by Northern Illinois athletics Tuesday evening.
Lewis played wide receiver for the Huskies but also played a role on special teams. His versatility was recognized by the Paul Hornung Award committee after playing in the first two weeks of the season before being sidelined. Northern Illinois says the school will apply for a medical redshirt for the senior through the MAC, supposing that is what Lewis will wish to do. Lewis has never redshirted but because he has already played this season he would lose the normal redshirt option.
Lewis has accounted for 3,617 all-purpose yards for Northern Illinois in 39 career games.
Only about a 30-minute drive from the Windy City, Northwestern portrays itself to be Chicago’s Big Ten team. If that is the case, then perhaps Northern Illinois should start making a claim to be Chicago’s MAC team. This weekend the two schools will meet each other on the field for just the eighth time in the series history. Northern Illinois could be ready to score its first victory in the series.
Northwestern is coming off a home loss to California, in which all of the weaknesses the Wildcats have this season were completely exposed. The lack of depth and inconsistent quarterback play doomed Pat Fitzgerald‘s team. Northwestern put up a fight late in the game, but only after digging a 31-7 hole at home against a team that failed to reach the postseason last year. The offense managed just 354 yards against a team that finished next to last in all of FBS football (123rd) in total defense in 2013. Northwestern can either take its lumps and improve from this, or show that what was seen in week one is a true testament to what Northwestern football may be in 2014.
NIU may have opened against a cupcake in week one (thumping Presbyterian 55-3), but the Huskies showed signs of being able to move on in the post-Jordan Lynch era with the same basic formula and identity. The Huskies wasted no time in establishing dominance over an inferior opponent, jumping out to a 17-0 lead in the first quarter and owning a 34-0 lead at the half. Northern Illinois churned out 424 rushing yards as a team, and will look to wear down Northwestern on the ground as well.
Northwestern leads the all-time series, which dates back to 1975, with a record of 6-0-1. The lone tie came in 1987. The two schools have faced each other just twice since 1991 (2000, 2005). With the Big Ten trying to get its members to shy away from scheduling games against programs from the MAC, games between the two schools may be few and far between for years. That may be why winning this game would be critical for a program like Northern Illinois. There are no future game son the schedule between these two schools, although Northwestern does have future dates against FCS schools Eastern Illinois, Western Illinois and Illinois State.
Many seem to have fallen on the Northwestern bandwagon in recent years. After this weekend, they may be found jumping off the bandwagon as it bursts into flames and goes crashing off the highway.