Boca Raton, FL (SportsNetwork.com) - Two conference champions will clash head to head in the inaugural Boca Raton Bowl as the Marshall Thundering Herd and the Northern Illinois Huskies converge on FAU Stadium on Dec. 23.
Marshall nearly made it through an unbeaten season in 2014, but dropped a regular-season finale to Western Kentucky, 67-66, in overtime that served as the team's lone loss. The Thundering Herd then won the Conference USA title over Louisiana Tech, 26-23, which set them up with this bowl game against Northern Illinois.
Speaking of the Huskies, NIU was able to easily capture the Mid-American Conference title with a 51-17 victory over Bowling Green on Detroit's Ford Field. With the invite to the inaugural Boca Raton Bowl, Northern Illinois extended its consecutive bowl game streak to seven seasons. It's the ninth time in the past 11 years NIU has been present in a postseason bowl contest.
This clash between Northern Illinois and Marshall represents the eighth time these teams will meet. NIU holds a 4-3 all-time advantage over the Thundering Herd in the series, but Marshall has won the two most recent contests in 1999 and 2001.
Marshall's offense has consistently been one of the most dominant in the FBS this season, entering this bowl game averaging 45.1 ppg with a whopping 563.4 total offensive ypg mark. At the center of it all is veteran quarterback Rakeem Cato - a Heisman hopeful for the last few seasons and the Herd's field general. Cato passed for 3,622 yards and 37 touchdowns in 2014, with 13 interceptions and six more rushing scores. His 278.6 passing ypg was a large reason for the team's success.
What could be a big blow to the Herd's lineup is the potential unavailability of running back Devon Johnson, who has been dealing with knee issues for the better part of November and December. Johnson has rushed for 1,636 yards with 16 touchdowns on 191 carries this season, but has been severely limited in the team's past few games because of the nagging injuries. Steward Butler (781 yards, seven touchdowns) would get the start in the backfield if Johnson can't go.
Cato's receivers have been exceptionally reliable this season, led by Tommy Shuler's 74 receptions, 953 yards and eight touchdowns. Tight end Eric Frohnapfel (404 yards, five touchdowns) and Deon-Tay McManus (375 yards, five touchdowns) are strong red-zone threats. And freshman Angelo Jean-Louis (464 yards, five touchdowns) has been as good as advertised.
For most that have faced Marshall this season, those teams have found it relatively difficult to score against the tough Herd defensive unit. Marshall is allowing opponents to score just 20.8 ppg, which includes the outlandish 66 points scored by Western Kentucky. Opponents are also averaging only 351.8 offensive ypg against the Herd, who have played three teams from the MAC already this season (all wins).
Linebacker Neville Hewitt leads the team with 114 tackles on the season, adding in 12 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks to his resume. But Marshall has largely prided itself on an exceptionally talented and deep secondary, which is led by Taj Letman (83 tackles, four interceptions), Darryl Roberts (16 pass breakups) and Corey Tindal (11 pass breakups). Lineman Arnold Blackmon (13.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks) will be the main cog trying to slow a strong NIU run game.
"We indicated to Conference USA, who makes the ultimate decision, that we would like to play the best possible opponent, and that is what we received in Northern Illinois," said Marshall athletic director Mike Hamrick. "NIU has been one of the elite group of five schools this season, and I know that our student-athletes, fans and staff are very excited for this matchup."
Northern Illinois won its third MAC title in the past four years with the defeat of Bowling Green. NIU loves to run the football, which has been the case for a number of years. But even without star rushing quarterback Jordan Lynch, the Huskies have made it work with Cameron Stingily (895 yards, 13 touchdowns) and current quarterback Drew Hare (850 yards, eight touchdowns). The Huskies average an eye-popping 252.9 rushing ypg.
While Hare has done plenty of damage using his legs this season, he's managed to put together a solid portfolio of passing work. Hare enters the game with Marshall completing just shy of 60 percent of his passes (59.9 percent) for 2,097 yards and 17 touchdowns against only two interceptions. He averages 161.3 passing ypg, and has been the leader of an NIU squad posting 32.2 ppg this season.
Receiver Da'Ron Brown has been stellar catching the ball from Hare this season, registering 1,002 yards and six touchdowns on 64 receptions. Juwan Brescacin's 405 receiving yards and five touchdowns is the next closest to Brown's totals, though Aregeros Turner (343 yards, two touchdowns) has made himself useful in the passing game.
Northern Illinois' defensive game has been on point, especially down the stretch when things could have unraveled so easily for NIU. The Huskies are allowing opponents to score 23.6 ppg and gain 382.9 offensive ypg this season, though NIU hasn't faced an offense quite as dangerous as Marshall's yet. But against strong offensive teams like Toledo (24 points), Western Michigan (21 points) and Bowling Green (17 points), the Huskies showed they can defend some of the best.
Safety Marlon Moore has been at the top of the team's tackle list all season long, and enters this contest with Marshall owning 93 stops to pace the Huskies. Dechan Durante's four interceptions is a team high, and he could prove useful against Cato, who threw four picks against WKU. Paris Logan (three interceptions, fo15 pass breakups) will likely be shadowing Shuler, and Jason Meehan (9.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks) will be in charge of trying to contain the run game.
"As far as bowl games, you're going to have two conference champions going at it, and you don't get that in many, if any, bowl games outside of the College Football Playoff," NIU coach Rod Carey said. "It's an unbelievable matchup. We have a ton of respect for Marshall, coach (Doc) Holliday and their staff and what they have done this year."