The 4 big questions for Tuesday’s Marshall-NIU and Navy-SDSU bowls
Sometimes the undercard continues after the main event. Monday’s Miami Beach Bowl was probably the pinnacle of the mid-major bowl season, but on Tuesday come two more interesting battles, one in Boca Raton and one in San Diego.
Boca Raton Bowl, 6 ET, ESPN: Marshall (12-1) vs. Northern Illinois (11-2)
Does late-season NIU show up?
In the F/+ rankings, Northern Illinois — the school with five consecutive 11-win seasons — doesn’t make the mid-major top 20. The 11-2 Huskies come in 72nd overall, 21nd among non-power schools and behind eight schools who have combined for a 49-47 record. They’re 10 spots behind FBS newbie Georgia Southern.
So how are the Huskies this iffy if their record is this good?
1. Close wins. NIU is 4-0 in games decided by one possession and 9-0 in games decided by fewer than 17 points. They got throttled by Arkansas, 52-14, and lost at home to CMU, 34-17. They struggled to put away UNLV, Miami (Ohio), and Eastern Michigan. They have been good enough to survive the fact that they’re not very good.
2. Early struggles. Every result above happened before November. NIU didn’t dominate bad Ball State and Ohio teams down the stretch, but they were good enough to beat Toledo (F/+ No. 63) at home. And with the MAC West title on the line, they stormed past Western Michigan (No. 47) and won, 31-21, in Kalamazoo. And with the conference title in their sights, they put together easily their best performance, a 51-17 MAC title pounding of Bowling Green.
Over the course of the season, NIU wasn’t a very good team. But the Huskies played their best ball late. To say the least, that will have to bleed into bowl season if they want to hang with a team that has been the best of the mid-majors.
The Huskies played an incredible game of keep-away against Bowling Green. They ran 100 plays to BGSU’s 60 and racked up 29 first downs to the Falcons’ 13. Turnovers helped, but NIU was able to run the ball at will (something the Huskies are happy to do until you stop them) and catch up when falling behind (9-for-14 on third-and-5 or longer).
They’ll need to work some of that magic against a Marshall defense that pulled an NIU in reverse: dominate for most of the season, then lay a giant egg (738 yards, 67 points against Western Kentucky on November 28) when it mattered most.
Can Marshall keep the spigot turned on?
Marshall has gained at least 10 yards 259 times (first in the country), at least 20 yards 106 times (14 ahead of second place), at least 30 yards 54 times (10 ahead of second place), and at least 60 yards 11 times (first). Five runners have at least one rush of 40-plus yards. Seven receivers have caught at least one pass of 35-plus.
Granted, this came against opponents that were less than dominant (to put it kindly), but … well, NIU ranks 85th in Def. F/+. The Huskies are less than dominant.
It is a damn shame that Marshall’s weak schedule was timed for this season. The Herd are experienced and perhaps more athletic than any Conference USA team has ever been. They looked like a deeper program than Maryland in last year’s bowl win … and they haven’t played a team from a power conference since. They won’t get to prove themselves against a high-caliber opponent, but they do get one more opportunity to put up huge numbers.
NIU will force the Herd to be patient. The Huskies rank 82nd in success rate (unadjusted for opponent) but 26th in IsoPPP, a measure of the magnitude of successful plays. They have allowed 15 gains of 30-plus yards in 13 games, eighth in the country. You can nip them for five or six yards, but if you fall behind, you might not be able to bail out.
NIU has baited teams into 10 turnovers in the last two games. Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato has thrown seven picks in his last four games.
Cato’s career accomplishments are legion — nearly 14,000 passing yards, over 800 rushing yards, 141 touchdowns — but his last three games have been a mixed bag. He completed 54 percent with a sub-130 rating against UAB and Louisiana Tech. And while throwing for 417 and seven scores against WKU, he threw four interceptions. He is talented, but he does make mistakes. If NIU capitalizes, the Huskies could pull the upset.
Poinsettia Bowl, 9:30 ET, ESPN: Navy (7-5) vs. San Diego State (7-5)
Funky offense vs. funky defense
Navy has been an anti-NIU. The Midshipmen rank a solid 50th in the F/+ ratings, but tight early losses — 31-24 to Rutgers, 36-27 to WKU, 30-21 to Air Force — sent them to a 2-4 start. They eased past a bad San Jose State team and faded in a 10-point loss to Notre Dame, but romped 52-19 over a strong Georgia Southern and survived with a 42-40 win at South Alabama. Combine that with the customary win over Army, and you’ve got a happy end to the regular season.
Navy does only one thing well, but the Middies do it really well. They rank 99th in Def. F/+ and 93rd on special teams, but they’re 12th in Off. F/+, easily No. 1 among mid-majors.
You know what Navy is going to do. You can’t really stop it. Junior quarterback Keenan Reynolds has set the NCAA record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback and has rushed for almost 1,200 yards and 21 scores this year. He gets plenty of help from fullbacks Noah Copeland and Chris Swain (1,510 yards, 7.1 per carry) and slotbacks Geoffrey Whiteside, Ryan Williams-Jenkins, and DeBrandon Sanders (807 yards, 8.0 per carry). On a per-carry basis, Copeland and Swain have had almost unprecedented success for flexbone fullbacks, and Reynolds has been outstanding in making the proper read.
San Diego State held Air Force to 140 rushing yards (3.4 per carry) and 14 points on November 21. But Navy is more committed to the flexbone than Air Force, which varies its blocking schemes and formations. Plus, Navy’s offense is simply better than Air Force’s; noting that SDSU stopped Air Force is like saying that since you stopped Kentucky’s spread, you can stop Baylor’s.
If nothing else, we can say that SDSU played strong assignment defense against the Falcons. It may not be a positive sign, but it’s not a negative one. And while most teams have to adjust for Navy’s unique attack, SDSU head coach Rocky Long forces you to adjust for his 3-3-5 defense as well. If Navy cannot account for linebacker Calvin Munson (10.5 tackles for loss), the Aztecs might be able to make quick stops.
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Who can pass?
SDSU’s offense isn’t good, but it’s persistent. The Aztecs run the ball two-thirds of the time on standard downs (66.3 percent, 28th in FBS); Donnel Pumphrey averages about 21 carries per game, and Chase Price chips in about 11. While they rank just 60th in Rushing S&P+, they’re just good enough at it to keep doing it. Navy’s defense ranks 91st in Rushing S&P+.
Be prepared for a quick game. Both are capable of minutes-long drives, and neither would be averse to four possessions per half. Both should be able to run.
If all of that cancels out, the winner could be whoever can pass when they need to. SDSU seems to have more receiving options; only one Midshipman (Jamir Tillman) has been targeted more than 15 times, while SDSU wideouts Ezell Ruffin and Eric Judge have combined for 864 receiving yards at 10.4 yards per target. But No. 1 Aztec target Lloyd Mills has managed only a 45-percent catch rate, and SDSU quarterback Quinn Kaehler has been mistake-prone. He has thrown nine touchdowns to 10 interceptions this year, and in his last three games, he completed 38 of 74 passes (51 percent) for 533 yards, two scores, and two picks.
Occasionally, one offense or the other will find itself in a third-and-long. Which one is able to catch up with the chains?