December 27, 2008

Independence Bowl features unexpected matchup

MORE: Bowl schedule and coverage

Let's go ahead and call Sunday's Independence Bowl exactly what it is: the least anticipated postseason matchup of them all.

That's a dubious label to slap on a bowl with an underrated tradition that stretches back to its founding in 1976. But it's accurate. It's just too bad the bowl no longer is sponsored by Poulan and called the "Weedeater Independence Bowl." No doubt, this is a game that needs to have a weed whacker taken to it.

INDEPENDENCE BOWL

Louisiana Tech (7-5)
vs. Northern Illinois (6-6)

WHEN: 8:15 p.m. Dec. 28.
WHERE: Independence Stadium, Shreveport, La.
TV: ESPN (Pam Ward will do play-by-play, with Ray Bentley as the analyst).
THE LINE: Northern Illinois by 1.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Louisiana Tech 1-4, Northern Illinois 0-5.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Louisiana Tech 110th, Northern Illinois T-87th.
BCS RANKINGS: N/A for either team.
COACHES: Northern Illinois − Jerry Kill (first bowl); Louisiana Tech − Derek Dooley (first bowl).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: The coaches offer intrigue. Kill has battled kidney cancer, while Dooley is the son of legendary Georgia coach Vince Dooley and is a rising star who one day may be coaching an SEC team.
KEY STATS: Northern Illinois likes to run the football. So does Louisiana Tech. Which ground game will dominate? The Huskies average 172.8 rushing yards per game, the Bulldogs 195.0.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Want to see a future NFL player? Watch Northern Illinois defensive end Larry English, the 2008 MAC Defensive Player of the Year. His athletic skills are more suited for a Big Ten team.
In one corner, we have 7-5 Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs look legit, having scored victories over the likes of Mississippi State and Fresno State. But Louisiana Tech also lost to Army and one of Tech's triumphs came over Southeastern Louisiana, a Football Championship Subdivision school.

In the other corner, we have 6-6 Northern Illinois. The Huskies' biggest wins? They came over, well, no one. NIU beat no team that is going to a bowl. The biggest pluses on the Huskies' résumé are close losses to Minnesota (31-27), Western Michigan (29-26) and Tennessee (13-9).

"We were picked dead last in our conference," said Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill, in his first season after being hired away from Southern Illinois, an FCS program. "To achieve what this team has done and to be chosen for a bowl game, it speaks highly of the tremendous commitment and dedication shown by our players and staff."

While Kill pats himself on the back, know this: Northern Illinois vs. Louisiana Tech is a byproduct of a bowl system that is bloated beyond belief.

This isn't the matchup the Independence Bowl folks had in mind back in August. Louisiana Tech and Northern Illinois are here only because the Big 12 and SEC didn't have enough bowl-eligible teams to fill their prearranged spots in this bowl.

Thus, blame schools such as Colorado and Kansas State, which both went 5-7, for failing to live up to even modest expectations while battling in the Big 12. And Texas A&M disappointed many with a 4-8 mark.

And, golly, couldn't Tennessee, Auburn or Arkansas – all 5-7 – have mustered at least a 6-6 record to snag a bid to this bowl while competing in the SEC?

Instead, we have NIU vs. Louisiana Tech.

Looking for a positive spin? Here it is. This time last year, no one could have envisioned either of these teams in the postseason. In 2007, Louisiana Tech had a young club and struggled to win five games; most preseason WAC polls tabbed the Bulldogs to finish fifth in the conference this season.

"It's a celebration for a good season," Louisiana Tech coach Derek Dooley said of the bowl bid. "You want your players to enjoy this experience, but there is also the commitment to be made to winning.

"We're not going there [to Shreveport] just to have a party or a fun time. We're going to win."

The prospects entering this season were bleaker for Northern Illinois. The Huskies were coming off a 2-10 season and most thought Kill and his staff would be fortunate to preside over a team that won four games. Instead, NIU broke through in one of the most impressive debuts of any new coach this season.

"It's a credit to the tremendous job Coach Kill and his staff have done, to accomplish what they have in only one year," said Dooley, who has Louisiana Tech in a bowl for the first time since 2001. "They've certainly got our respect, and I see a great game between the two teams in Shreveport on Dec. 28. We're both similar in that we've got our fans excited about the success we're having and being in a bowl game."

We are glad someone is excited about this game.

Who has the edge?

Northern Illinois run offense vs. Louisiana Tech run defense
The Huskies have started five tailbacks and have still been productive. QB Chandler Harnish is a redshirt freshman with nifty feet who operates behind a good line. But NIU may find running room scarce against a Louisiana Tech defense that is No. 11 in the nation vs. the run (99.8 ypg). Few defensive backs support the run better than safety Antonio Baker.
Edge: Even.

Northern Illinois pass offense vs. Louisiana Tech pass defense
This is weakness against weakness. NIU's passing game scares no one. In fact, it ranks last in the MAC. That's good news for Tech, which has the 117th-worst pass defense in America. When the Bulldogs need to bring the heat, tackle D'Anthony Smith is the man.
Edge: Even.

Louisiana Tech run offense vs. Northern Illinois run defense
This is a tough, physical Bulldogs offense, led by the strong 1-2 punch of RBs Daniel Porter and Patrick Jackson. But the Huskies counter with a strong front seven that has limited foes to 141.2 rushing yards per game.
Edge: Louisiana Tech.

Louisiana Tech pass offense vs. Northern Illinois pass defense
Ross Jenkins took over as the starting quarterback in the sixth game and showed promise, especially when hooking up with star WR Phillip Livas. Still, the Bulldogs' passing attack ranks 103rd in the nation. And the Huskies feature the No. 5 pass defense in America.
Edge: Northern Illinois.

Louisiana Tech special teams vs. Northern Illinois special teams
NIU has one of the MAC's better kickers in Mike Salerno, who twice has made late field goals to tie or win a game. But after that, there isn't a lot to brag about. Special teams are an area of emphasis for Tech. The Bulldogs have a difference-maker in return man Livas, who has run back two punts for TDs.
Edge: Louisiana Tech.

Louisiana Tech coaches vs. Northern Illinois coaches
These are two underrated coaches with opposite background. Jerry Kill has worked his way up through the "backwoods," while Derek Dooley has worked at the sport's highest levels. But each is a stickler for fundamentals and discipline, and each believes in a strong ground game.
Edge: Even.

X-factor: Special teams could be the difference in what looks like an even matchup. That means Louisiana Tech's Livas could provide a spark with a big punt return.

Northern Illinois will win if: NIU needs to effectively run the ball, which will allow the Huskies to control the ball and wear down Tech's more athletic defense.

Louisiana Tech will win if: Jenkins needs to hit some passes to open up NIU's defense, which would create running room for the Bulldogs' strong runners.

The picks
Tom Dienhart: Louisiana Tech 28, Northern Illinois 24
Mike Huguenin: Louisiana Tech 20, Northern Illinois 17

Tom Dienhart is the national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.



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