Northern Illinois (10-3) vs. Fresno State (8-4)
Saturday, December 18th, 5:30 p.m. (et)
From The Sports Network
By Gregg Xenakes, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: The 14th annual Humanitarian Bowl brings back a familiar face in the Fresno State Bulldogs who will be taking on the Northern Illinois Huskies this weekend in Boise, Idaho.
Fresno State, guided by head coach Pat Hill, is playing in this particular bowl game for the third time in the last seven years and already has wins over Virginia (37-34 OT) and Georgia Tech (40-28) in 2004 and 2007, respectively. Known as a program that is willing to take on anyone, anytime, anywhere, the Bulldogs managed to put together an 8-4 record in 2010 and were an impressive 5-3 versus the rest of the Western Athletic Conference. Coach Hill had little trouble guiding the squad to wins over the second-tier programs in the WAC and almost pulled off a huge upset against nationally-ranked Nevada as well, before bowing in a 35-34 final at home in the middle of November. The Bulldogs are currently riding a two-game win streak thanks to victories over Idaho and Illinois, although they came by a combined five points.
Meanwhile, Northern Illinois is a program in transition. Earlier this month head coach Jerry Kill accepted an offer to become the next head coach at Minnesota and that means assistant coach Tom Matukewicz will handle the head coaching responsibilities for this particular contest before the team is handed over to Dave Doeren, who will become the full-time man after his Wisconsin Badgers have finished up their season in the Rose Bowl against TCU on January 1, 2011.
The Huskies ran the table in the Mid-American Conference this season, sporting a perfect 8-0 record as they captured the West Division title. In fact, the team won nine straight games to close out the regular season, with the streak beginning with a 34-23 win at Minnesota ironically enough. However, even being the top scoring offense in the league (37.9 ppg) couldn't help the squad when it came to the MAC Championship game against Miami-Ohio. A week after putting up an incredible 71-3 win over Eastern Michigan, the Huskies found themselves with a disappointing 26-21 defeat at the hands of a RedHawks team that converted a late 4th-and-20 play to stay alive.
Needless to say, it was a devastating setback for a Northern Illinois group that had scored a combined 195 points in the third previous, but still there is work to be done.
"The staff and I are thrilled to have a plan in place to lead our football team at the Humanitarian Bowl in Boise, Idaho.," said Matukewicz when he assumed control. "Our hearts were broken in Detroit, then we lost our coach on Sunday, so we have a choice to make. We can all come together as a team, a university, a community and a region for a common goal, or we can start to fracture. On December 18, on national television, we have an opportunity to tell our story about a great university and a team everyone can be proud of. We have three goals in Boise - win, have fun and celebrate one of the best seasons in school history."
NIU's bowl history dates back to 1983 when the team took down Fullerton by a final of 20-13 in the California Bowl, but after that it was more than two decades before the Huskies made it back to the postseason with their 34-21 victory against Troy in the 2004 Silicon Valley Bowl. Unfortunately, the last three bowl appearances for NIU have all resulted in defeat, the most recent of those being a 27-3 loss to South Florida in last year's International Bowl which dropped the group to 2-3 in bowl outings.
As for the Bulldogs, they are into the postseason for the fourth straight year and the 24th time overall dating back to the 1937 All-American Bowl which brought them a 27-26 win over Arkansas State. Last season, FSU lost in double- overtime to Wyoming in the New Mexico Bowl, 35-28, which means the Bulldogs are now just a game over .500 in the postseason at 12-11.
"Our team is excited to play in the uDrove Humanitarian Bowl against a very talented Northern Illinois team," said coach Hill, who is in his 14th season at Fresno State. "Boise is a great football town with great fan support not only for their hometown Broncos but for college football in general. Our two previous trips were special and memorable for our team and we had two historic wins for our program. We are looking forward to the great hospitality of the people of the Treasure Valley."
The guiding force behind the high-powered Northern Illinois offense down the stretch came from the rushing attack which finished the season with not only 3,442 yards, but a staggering 38 touchdowns. In the final three regular-season dates, the group scored an amazing 18 TDs on the ground and Chad Spann played a big part of that as he hit the end zone eight times on his own versus Toledo, Ball State and EMU. Spann didn't exactly blow away opponents with overwhelming yardage totals, outside of his 223 yards on just 15 carries versus the Golden Gophers early on, but he was always there to get the team into the end zone which he did a total of 20 times.
Quarterback Chandler Harnish was a model of consistency with his 64.7 percent passing accuracy and 20 TDs through the air, against just five interceptions, which means the Huskies can beat you a couple of different ways when they face the right defense. Willie Clark led the group with 38 catches for 514 yards and seven TDs as well.
On defense, the Huskies have a couple of ball hawks who always seem to be part of the action in one way or another. Tyrone Clark and Chris Smith combined to log seven interceptions, the latter leading the team with nine pass breakups and a total of 12 defended. Tommy Davis accounted for three recovered fumbles as he also placed third on the squad with 69 tackles and because of that trio the Huskies finished second in the MAC and 17th in the nation in turnover margin (0.77) per game.
The hallmark of a Pat Hill-coached team continues to be the defense and, outside of the ugly 51-0 loss to Boise State on the road back in late November, it was again the centerpiece around what everything else was built in 2010. The group placed second in the conference and sixth in the nation in sacks with better than three per game and was 21st nationally with almost seven tackles for loss per outing and a lot of the credit there goes to senior defensive end Chris Carter. The California native led the WAC and was seventh in the nation in sacks with 11.0 for a loss of 63 yards on the season. He was tied for second in the conference in TFLs with 16.5 and forced four fumbles on the year as he became the fourth FSU member to earn the Western Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year award.
Once again the offense for the Bulldogs was rather ordinary in 2010, but of course that will always be the case when the program is going up against the likes of Hawaii, Nevada and Boise State every year anyway. Quarterback Ryan Colburn was responsible for converting almost 62 percent of his pass attempts for more than 2,500 yards and 21 touchdowns, against just nine interceptions, but after throwing nine TDs over the first three games he didn't exactly raise many eyebrows until the regular-season finale when he threw three TDs and posted just his second 300-yard passing game in the win over Illinois.
Receiver Jamel Hamler earned all-conference honors as he turned his 47 catches into 725 yards and five scores, all of which paced the Bulldogs, but once again this year the offense leaned heavily on the running back position and one Robbie Rouse who gained close to 1,100 yards and hit the end zone eight times. Rouse ran for more than 100 yards in four straight games and had back- to-back 200-yard efforts as well, but he missed the Illinois matchup and is listed as questionable this weekend with an injury to his ribs.
Going up against another high-powered offense won't be easy but coach Hill, who agreed to take less money to stay on with Fresno State, will have his boys ready after studying the film on how Miami-Ohio turned the trick. It also wouldn't hurt for the Bulldogs to take a look at the tape from the last meeting with NIU, an overwhelming 55-7 win for FSU back in 1991 which evened the all-time series at 2-2.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Fresno State 31, Northern Illinois 23
12/15 11:16:15 ET