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Conference Champions Marshall and Northern Illinois Meet in the Inaugural Boca Raton Bowl

In what many are calling the best early bowl season matchup, the Mid-American Conference and Conference USA champions meet at FAU Stadium in Boca Raton, Florida. Marshall looks to finish their season at a perfect 4-0 against MAC teams and overcome their late season struggles against a powerful NIU team.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Line: Marshall by 10

The Night of Champions

This coming Tuesday is arguably the biggest pre-New Year's Eve bowl as teams from snowy Chicago and cold West Virginia head to the sunny beaches of Florida for the Boca Raton Bowl. The MAC Champion Northern Illinois Huskies and C-USA Champion Marshall Thundering Herd meet in the inaugural game. Bowl planners are anticipating a pretty full house at 30,000 seat FAU Stadium in a bowl matchup featuring the most combined wins outside the College Football Playoff.

How Northern Illinois Got Here

Northern Illinois comes into this game with a record of 11-2, 7-1 in the Mid-American Conference. Northern's losses came on the road at Arkansas and at home against the Bahamas Bowl bound Central Michigan Chippewas. Throughout the regular season, the Huskies got non-conference wins at Northwestern and UNLV, and then rolled through the MAC schedule, outside their hiccup against CMU. In the MAC title game, Northern Illinois destroyed Bowling Green 51-17 to clinch their 3rd MAC title in 4 years, nearing Marshall's streak of dominance in the late ‘90s and early 2000's.

After the graduation of Heisman finalist Jordan Lynch, many were curious to how the Huskies would respond, but their run game didn't lose a step with running back Cameron Stingily and quarterback Drew Hare both running for over 850 yards on the season. The Huskies' offense has been somewhat one-dimensional, ranking 14th nationally in rushing but 101st in passing at less than 190 yards per game. The Huskies defense has been good, but inconsistent, giving up less than 20 points six times, but also giving up 34 or more points three times.

How Marshall Got Here

Marshall comes into this game at 12-1, 7-1 in Conference USA. The Herd started the season strong, but played at a lower level down the stretch, with a 5-point win at UAB, a 1-point overtime loss to Western Kentucky, and a 3-point late rallying win over Louisiana Tech in the Conference USA Championship game. Northern Illinois will be Marshall's 4th opponent out of the formerly nicknamed "Marshall Athletic Conference", after Marshall's early season drubbings of Miami (OH), Ohio, and Akron.

Until their 11th game, Marshall torched their opponents, winning every game by at least 2 touchdowns. At the end of the season, Marshall became the first school to win two different conference championship games and won their 1st C-USA title, their 13th conference title overall (3 WVIAC, 1 Buckeye, 3 Southern, 5 MAC).

This season was the season all Herd fans were looking towards with a number of seniors on the offensive and defensive side of the ball, including record-breaking Rakeem Cato and his favorite target Tommy Shuler. Early in the season, a new cog emerged that helped balance the Herd offense in Devon Johnson, who broke records of his own this year and likely would have challenged many of Chris Parker's single-season records if not for a late season injury.

Marshall's defense was arguably the best part of their game all season... except for the 67 points given up against Western Kentucky. If the points from the WKU game are removed, Marshall's defense surrendered only 17 points per game, a touchdown better than their counterparts in this game.

Players to Watch

Drew Hare - Northern Illinois' signal caller is a dual threat in the truest sense of the phrase. The sophomore quarterback has thrown for over 2,000 yards and run for over 800 in Rod Carey's offense. The biggest key to Hare's game is not turning the ball over. He has 17 touchdowns to only 2 interceptions. Against a Marshall defense that has been somewhat susceptible to the run and pass at different points throughout the season, but has playmakers all over the field, Hare must protect the football.

Rakeem Cato - In his final game in a Herd uniform, Cato needs to finish strong to truly etch his name in the upper echelon of Marshall quarterbacks, with the likes of Pennington and Leftwich. Outside of the offense putting up gaudy numbers, Cato has 2 division titles, 1 conference title, and 2 bowl wins, to this point, in his career. While his name is atop most of the Marshall record books, many Herd fans (including this one) would not put him in the same breath as Chad and Byron, but a win in the bowl game could help cement him in Marshall lore with the other greats.

Prediction

Marshall will be coming into this game with a heavy heart. On the evening of December 17th, Marshall president Dr. Stephen J. Kopp passed away after going into cardiac arrest. Kopp was a pillar of the community and oversaw massive growth of the school over his 9-year tenure, including the new Chris Cline Athletic Complex (the new indoor practice facility for the football team). The Marshall community was also saddened after the death of Elwood Pennington, Chad Pennington's father and another Marshall alumnus. After these tragedies, Marshall announced that they will have ‘10' and ‘SJK' decals on their helmets to honor the two departed Sons of Marshall.

In all honesty, these developments have somewhat swayed my prediction. Northern Illinois is larger than Marshall across the board and will run the ball right at the Marshall defense, which the Herd defense has had some problems with throughout this season. However, Marshall will be playing a motivated game, especially with Devon Johnson likely being back on the field for the Herd. Anyone who watched this team knows that Marshall is just better when he is on the field. I think Marshall will be motivated with so many seniors playing their final game near their home town and in memory of Dr. Kopp. Marshall wins late, but does not cover the 10 point spread.

Marshall 35 - Northern Illinois 31