MARSHALL THUNDERING HERD (12-1) vs. NORTHERN ILLINOIS HUSKIES (11-2)
DEC. 23, 6 P.M. ET, FAU STADIUM, BOCA RATON, FLA. (ESPN)
Season highlights: The Thundering Herd reeled off 11 straight wins and were one of only two unbeaten teams in the FBS heading into Week 14. They made their first appearance that week in the College Football Playoff rankings at No. 24, fueling hope that they might earn the Group of 5 spot in a New Year’s Six bowl game. Until a narrow road victory over UAB and then an upset loss to Western Kentucky in the regular-season finale, Marshall had beaten opponents by an average of more than 30 points per game. The Herd rebounded from the Western Kentucky loss by beating Louisiana Tech in the Conference USA championship game.
Season lowlights: There weren’t many, one to be exact: the 67-66 overtime loss at home to Western Kentucky to put a damper on the regular season. The Herd trailed 42-21 in the second quarter but charged back to tie the game at 59 at the end of regulation. They scored a touchdown on their possession of overtime, but the Hilltoppers answered with a touchdown and then won the game with a successful 2-point conversion. Not only did the upset loss ruin Marshall’s dream of an unbeaten season, but it also eliminated any chance of the Herd playing in a New Year’s Six bowl game.
Player to watch: Senior quarterback Rakeem Cato put up eye-popping numbers for the second straight season on his way to breaking Chad Pennington’s school passing records. Cato enters the bowl game having thrown a touchdown pass in an FBS-record 45 straight games. He has passed for 3,622 yards and 37 touchdowns this season and is the only Marshall quarterback in history to throw 30 or more touchdowns in three seasons. The 6-foot-1, 176-pound Cato isn’t big, but he has a big arm for a guy his size, throws the deep ball with pinpoint accuracy and is a fierce competitor.
Motivation factor: The knock on the Herd all season was that they played a soft schedule and weren’t as good as their record indicated, which is why they wanted to get a shot at a Power 5 team in a bigger bowl. They eased some of the pain of losing their unbeaten season by winning the Conference USA championship but would like to further validate themselves by winning a second straight bowl game after taking down Maryland a year ago in the Military Bowl.
-- Chris Low
NORTHERN ILLINOIS BREAKDOWN
Season highlights: The Huskies just keep rolling along in the MAC, appearing in their fifth consecutive conference title game even after losing Heisman Trophy finalist Jordan Lynch last season. Rod Carey’s club survived a few close calls along the way to its latest postseason appearance, including a narrow win over a struggling Kent State squad. But Northern Illinois knocked off Big Ten member Northwestern early in the season to prove once again that it could compete outside of the league, and it closed the regular season with a six-game winning streak.
Season lowlights: There are only two regular-season losses to pick from for the Huskies, and it’s clear which one will stick with them when they look back at another double-digit win season under Carey. Arkansas proved it was no joke by the end of the season, but getting flattened 52-14 never feels good for a program that has built a respectable reputation for punching above its weight like Northern Illinois has over the past few seasons.
Player to watch: There is no Heisman campaign this year, but wide receiver Da'Ron Brown is certainly worthy of some attention after the senior turned in the finest season of his career to get the Huskies back to the MAC title game. Brown hauled in 64 catches for 1,002 yards, a sparkling average of 15.7 yards per catch, and he chipped in seven total touchdowns along the way.
Motivation factor: With a program intent on proving it should be viewed as more than just the class of a lower-echelon league, Northern Illinois could use a bowl victory to help make that case. The Huskies came up short in both of their chances over the past two seasons, with last year’s loss to Utah State in particular dealing them a bit of a credibility blow. Carey and his club will certainly want to make some amends for that this time around.
-- Austin Ward