Boca Raton Bowl Preview: Marshall Thundering Herd vs. Northern Illinois Huskies

The Boca Raton Bowl has to be thrilled with their clash of Group of Five conference champions as their game features the Conference USA Champion Marshall Thundering Herd against the Mid-American Conference Champion  Northern Illinois Huskies. These are two of the best non-power five schools in the country and this bowl game should be a treat for college football fans.

MARSHALL (12-1; C-USA Champions) vs NORTHERN ILLINOIS (11-2; MAC Champions)

Marshall spent much of the season as a disrespected undefeated team and they found it difficult to break the polls even as they climbed as high as 11-0. They were only ranked 24th at 11-0 when they were ultimately upset 67-66 by Western Kentucky on a risky all or nothing two point conversion in overtime. They were one play away from an undefeated season and a New Years Day bowl birth that ultimately went to 11-2 Boise State against #10 Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl.

Instead Marshall will have to once again fight for their respect as they turn their attention to a very good Northern Illinois team in the Boca Raton Bowl. It may not be the Fiesta Bowl, but the Huskies are MAC Champions and an eleven win team. Northern Illinois is enjoy a string of success and if the Thunder Herd aren’t ready to play they will be embarrassed by a very good team.

However, Senior captain Rakeem Cato shouldn’t allow that to happen. Cato is working on an NCAA record 45 games in a row with a touchdown pass and is the centerpiece of the Marshall offense. He threw for 3,622 passing yards and 37 touchdowns along with 13 interceptions and six more touchdowns on the ground. As a four year starter Cato has thrown for 128 passing touchdowns in his career. Marshall’s 287.8 yards passing per game was good for 18th in the country.

His counterpart on Northern Illinois is sophomore Drew Hare. Hare is a first year starter completing 60% of his passes for 2,097 yards, 17 touchdowns, and just two interceptions. Although Cato gives Marshall the big experience advantage, Hare has shown he won’t turn the ball over and he will be smart as he leads the 101st ranked Husky pass offense (189.5 passing yards/game).

Both teams feature dangerous rushing attacks and defenses that do a good job of keeping their opponents off the scoreboard. Devon Johnson has been great on the ground for Marshall all season, racking up 1,600 yards on the ground and 16 touchdowns. Johnson has helped Marshall to the 7th ranked 275.6 yards per game on the ground. Cato’s passing attack figures to be the difference on paper, but their successful running game has helped them win a lot of games.

Cato will not only need to get production from top receiver Tommy Shuler (74 rec, 953 yards, 8 TDs) but other options through the air as well. With the Huskies focused in on Johnson and Shuler, it should open up more opportunities for secondary receivers Davonte Allen, Angelo Jean-Louis, Eric Frohnapfel, and Deon-Tay McManus. Marshall has been in tight games as of late and may need to try to outscore the Huskies to win.

Northern Illinois relies on a mixture of running back Cameron Stingily and quarterback Drew Hare to get their rushing production. The Huskies average 252 yards per game with Stingily rushing for 895 yards and Hare 850 yards during the regular season. Northern Illinois likes to spread the defense out to run the ball, keep the down and distance short, and extend drives to keep their defense off the field.

That will be their formula to attack Marshall as well. Drew Hare now has a full season under his belt and with a few weeks of practice prior to this game, we may see him open it up a bit. Da’Ron Brown and Juwan Brescacin have reached the endzone a combined eleven times and should continue to be targets in the redzone. Brown went over 1,000 yards in the regular season to go along with his six touchdown catches.

The Huskies give up just over 23 points per game while Marshall gives up just under 21. The two teams are very evenly matches on paper and shared two common opponents in the regular season in Miami (OH) and Ohio University.

Northern Illinois

Vs. Miami (OH) W 51-41
Vs. Ohio W 21-14


Vs. Miami (OH) W 42-27
Vs. Ohio W 44-14

Vs. Common Opponents (Miami OH and Ohio):

Points Scored:                         NIU 72            MARSH 86

Points Allowed:                      NIU 55            MARSH 41

1st Downs:                               NIU 49            MARSH 51

1st Downs Allowed:                NIU 50            MARSH 44

Total Yards:                            NIU 983          MARSH 1,137

Total Yards Allowed:            NIU 858          MARSH 795

Passing Yards:                       NIU 409          MARSH 709
Pass Yds Allowed:                 NIU 487          MARSH 554

Rushing Yards:                       NIU 574          MARSH 428
Rush Yds Allowed:                NIU 371          MARSH 241

Turnover Differential:             NIU 0              MARSH -1


Marshall leads every single statistically category other than rushing yards in this small two game sample. It may not be the greatest indication of success, but it’s another thing that points to Marshall this game.

Northern Illinois has built up a bit of a reputation as a consistently dangerous program and MAC powerhouse. They will be fighting to gain some respect for the MAC as they battle the Conference USA Champion. I expect them to come out motivated and ready to make a statement on behalf of the MAC Conference.

On the other side of the field, the Thundering Herd seem to have a special season going on and would like to cap it off with their 13th victory and become Boca Raton Bowl Champions. However, fans will no doubt have a hard time not asking themselves what could have been had they stopped Western Kentucky on that two point conversion in overtime.

Oh, what could have been.



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