NORTHERN ILLINOIS HUSKIES (8-5) vs. BOISE STATE BRONCOS (8-4)
Kickoff: 4:30 p.m. ET/1:30 p.m. PT, Wednesday, Dec. 23
Las Vegas: Boise State -8
No two programs outside of the Power Five conferences have enjoyed more sustained success in the last decade-and-change than Boise State and Northern Illinois. In fact, Boise State and Northern Illinois can put their records since about 2003 up against any program in the nation, regardless of conference affiliation.
Their pairing in a bowl game is a dream come true for Group of Five fans, even if their respective records are down from program standards.
Northern Illinois overachieved its way to an 8-4 regular season, winning a loaded MAC West despite a bevy of injuries at quarterback.
Ryan Graham, who filled in admirably for Drew Hare and led NIU’s upset of Toledo, should play Wednesday.
“He practiced the other day and we expect him to be back and ready to go,” Northern Illinois head coach Rod Carey said at last week’s Poinsettia Bowl press conference. “There was rust. We’re talking about a redshirt freshman, but, certainly, moving around, which is really good.”
Boise State’s four losses are indeed something of an aberration over the last 13 years, though the circumstances of each defeat are unique. BYU beat the Broncos Week 2 on a Hail Mary; Utah State took advantage of a remarkable seven turnovers in October; New Mexico capitalized on its dangerous option offense one week in November, and Air Force flipped the script the very next with an uncharacteristic passing attack.
Like NIU, Boise State struggled with issues at quarterback. Freshman Brett Rypien replaced Ryan Finley early in the year, and played with the inconsistency one would expect of a freshman.
Because both teams are playing young quarterbacks, there’s an air of unpredictability to the Poinsettia Bowl. NIU and Boise State will both rely on star running backs, Joel Bouagnon and Jeremy McNichols, but each defense is likely to load up the box to force the quarterbacks to make plays.
Boise State’s sack production dipped dramatically in 2015, but the Broncos have the capacity to bring an imposing pass rush — particularly against an offense that ranked No. 74 in sacks allowed, and has a youngster lined up behind center.