December 16, 2010

Humanitarian Bowl: Fresno St. vs. N. Illinois

HUMANITARIAN BOWL

Fresno State (8-4)
vs. Northern Illinois (10-3)
WHEN: 5:30 p.m., Dec. 18.
WHERE: Bronco Stadium, Boise, Idaho.
TV: ESPN (Justin Kutcher will do play-by-play, with David Diaz-Infante as the analyst).
THE LINE: Northern Illinois by 1.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Fresno State 1-3, Northern Illinois 1-2.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Fresno State T-81st, Northern Illinois 116th.
BCS RANKINGS: Both teams are unranked.
COACHES: Fresno State- Pat Hill (4-6 in bowls); Northern Illinois- Tom Matukewicz (0-0).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: Northern Illinois RB Chad Spann and Fresno State's pass rush are worth watching. Spann has run for 1,293 yards and 20 touchdowns this season, though he was held below 100 yards in each of his past four games. Fresno State has two double-digit sack providers in E Chris Carter (11 sacks) and T Logan Harrell (10.5).
KEY STATS: Fresno State ranks sixth nationally with 3.08 sacks per game, while Northern Illinois has allowed only one sack per game, which leads the MAC and ranks 14th in the nation.
Just about every season, at least one team heads into its bowl game while in the midst of a coaching change. But the challenge facing Northern Illinois this week remains unique.

Not only is Northern Illinois heading into the postseason with an interim coach on the sidelines, the Huskies also had little time to prepare for their new situation. Just over two weeks after losing to Miami (Ohio) in the MAC championship game, Northern Illinois (10-3) faces Fresno State (8-4) in the Humanitarian Bowl on Saturday afternoon.

Minnesota hired away NIU coach Jerry Kill on Dec. 5, just two days after the MAC championship game. Tom Matukewicz, who worked as Northern Illinois' linebackers coach during the regular season, will serve as the interim coach for the bowl game.

"Our hearts were broken in Detroit [at the MAC championship game] and then we lost our coach ... so we have a choice to make," Matukewicz said. "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."

This game also could serve as an introduction of sorts to the next chapter of NIU football since Matukewicz will remain on the Huskies' staff next season under new coach Dave Doeren, currently working as Wisconsin's defensive coordinator.

While Northern Illinois' coaching staff is in a state of flux, Fresno State features the stability of Pat Hill, who has headed the Bulldogs' program since 1997. But the schools have at least one thing in common, as both are seeking redemption. NIU is trying to bounce back from its surprising loss in the MAC championship game, while Fresno State wants to erase the unpleasant memories of its last trip to Bronco Stadium - a 51-0 loss to Boise State on Nov. 19.

WHO GETS THE EDGE?

Fresno State rush offense vs. Northern Illinois rush defense: This matchup could depend on the health of Fresno State RB Robbie Rouse. After running for more than 200 yards in back-to-back weeks against Louisiana Tech and Nevada, Rouse missed most of the Bulldogs' last two games with a broken hand and rib. He expects to play against NIU. He could have more running room than usual because of the anticipated return of G Andrew Jackson, a preseason All-America candidate who missed almost the entire regular season with a high ankle sprain. NIU has allowed 4.0 yards per carry. Edge: Fresno State.

Fresno State pass offense vs. Northern Illinois pass defense: Ryan Colburn has thrown for nearly 5,000 yards over the past two seasons. He has 21 touchdown passes with nine interceptions, and he has been picked off only three times over his past seven games. But he could struggle more than usual against NIU, which ranks 24th nationally in pass efficiency defense. The Huskies have 16 interceptions and have picked off at least one pass in 10 of their 13 games. Edge: Northern Illinois.

Northern Illinois rush offense vs. Fresno State rush defense: Spann has rushed for 1,293 yards and QB Chandler Harnish has run for 764 yards to lead a rushing attack that ranks seventh in the nation at 264.8 yards per game. Behind a physical line, the Huskies average 6.2 yards per carry. Fresno State has given up 154.8 rushing yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry to rank 65th in run defense. The Bulldogs could have an even tougher time trying to defend the run without LB Kyle Knox, who was suspended from the Humanitarian Bowl for a violation of team rules after ranking second on the team in tackles during the regular season. Edge: Northern Illinois.

Northern Illinois pass offense vs. Fresno State pass defense: This one's a tough call. Harnish ranks 16th in passing efficiency and has thrown 20 touchdown passes with only five interceptions, but he operates a run-oriented offense. Harnish has thrown for as many as 200 yards in only three of his past seven games. The Huskies don't have anyone with more than 514 receiving yards. Fresno State ranks 64th nationally in pass efficiency defense, but Chris Carter and Logan Harrell lead a fierce pass rush. Edge: Fresno State.

Fresno State special teams vs. Northern Illinois special teams: Fresno State K Kevin Goessling is a two-time first-team All-WAC selection who is 20-of-24 on field-goal attempts, including 2-of-3 from at least 50 yards out. Andrew Shapiro averages 37.8 yards per punt, and Fresno State ranks 83rd nationally in net punting. Northern Illinois' Michael Cklamovski is 15-of-25 on field goals and has missed five extra-point attempts. Josh Wilber averages 39.8 yards per punt, and the Huskies rank 105th nationally in net punting. Fresno return men Isaiah Burse (kickoffs) and Rashad Evans (punts) are solid, but Fresno's coverage teams are awful. NIU has allowed only nine punt returns all season, but opponents have managed 8.6 yards per return. NIU's kickoff coverage has been good, as have the Huskies' return teams. Edge: Fresno State.

Fresno State coaches vs. Northern Illinois coaches: This would have been an even matchup before Minnesota hired away Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill. Tom Matukewicz, who served as linebackers coach on Kill's staff, will work as the Huskies' interim coach for this game. Matukewicz has no head-coaching experience, while Fresno coach Pat Hill is working his 11th bowl game. Edge: Fresno State.

X-factor: This game could come down to which team handles adversity better. Northern Illinois is adjusting to an interim coach following the departure of Kill, while Fresno State is without three suspended players.

Fresno State will win if: The Bulldogs can't allow NIU to run wild. The Bulldogs have a good shot at winning if they can take an early lead and contain Northern Illinois' ground attack well enough to make their pass rush a factor.

Northern Illinois will win if: The Huskies need Chad Spann to outperform Robbie Rouse. It's tough to imagine the Huskies winning if Rouse outrushes Spann.

EXPERT PICKS

Olin Buchanan: Fresno State 27, Northern Illinois 20
Tom Dienhart: Fresno State 35, Northern Illinois 27
David Fox: Fresno State 28, Northern Illinois 24
Mike Huguenin: Northern Illinois 27, Fresno State 21
Steve Megargee: Fresno State 27, Northern Illinois 24

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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