NCF Nation: 2012 bowl

Instant analysis: NIU 38, ASU 20

January, 9, 2012
After blowing out to a 13-0 lead, Arkansas State couldn’t find a rhythm on offense with wide receiver Dwayne Frampton missing the bulk of the game with an injury. NIU, however, lost star quarterback Chandler Harnish briefly, but was able to still find the end zone and Harnish would return. Here’s how it all went down in Mobile, Ala.

How the game was won: Five Arkansas State turnovers doomed the Red Wolves, who couldn’t find a way to consistently generate any offensive production after the first quarter. NIU’s defense did a great job disrupting ASU quarterback Ryan Aplin, who threw three interceptions and couldn’t get in sync with his offense without Frampton.

Turning point: NIU running back Jamal Womble, all 5-11, 247-pounds of him, barreled into the end zone as time expired in the first half to give the Huskies a 21-13 lead at the break. And it came on fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line. Gutsy call after Arkansas State gave the ball to the Huskies on a muffed punt, then a roughing the punter call kept the drive alive to set up the score.

Star of the game: Spectacular night for NIU wide receiver Martel Moore, who caught eight balls for 225 yards – a whopping 28.1 yards per catch average – and a touchdown.

Play of the game: Taylor Stockemer’s leaping, one-handed 16-yard touchdown reception on fourth-and-four was just fantastic. Aplin heaved up it up with 11:12 left in the game, which cut NIU’s lead to 31-20. It made the fourth quarter a little more interesting, at least until Dechane Durante’s 36-yard pick-six with 8:20 left in the game to put NIU ahead 38-20.

Unsung hero: How about NIU backup quarterback Jordan Lynch filling in on the spot for Harnish in the second quarter? The backup QB goes 4-for-4 and engineers a seven-play, 78-yard touchdown drive that ended with him finding the end zone on an athletic 3-yard run. The score kept NIU's momentum going in Harnish's absence and put the Huskies ahead 14-13.

Stat of the game: 24 points off of five turnovers for the Huskies.

Record performance: For the 19 NIU seniors, it's their 35th win -- the most of any class in school history. The 11 wins this season matches the school record of 11 wins set last season. Bowl: Three Keys

January, 7, 2012
You saw the preview and prediction, now here are three keys for Northern Illinois and Arkansas State in the Bowl on Sunday.

Northern Illinois (10-3)

Experience counts: Northern Illinois is in a bowl game for the fourth consecutive season -- the longest streak in school history. The Huskies knocked off Fresno State in the 2010 Humanitarian Bowl 40-17 behind quarterback Chandler Harnish, who threw a touchdown, ran for two more and had 300 yards in the air and 72 on the ground. Arkansas State, meanwhile, is playing in just its second major bowl and first since 2005.

Step up, D: The Huskies have put up some impressive numbers this season, but their defensive performance seems to dictate the results. Consider: In the Huskies' 10 victories, they allowed 26.2 points and 371.4 yards per game, and forced 18 turnovers. Now, consider the three losses, in which they allowed 47.3 points and 572.7 yards per game, and forced only two turnovers. The offense drives the ship, but it looks like the defense is what makes the motor run. As it goes, so go the Huskies.

Key in on Frampton: Arkansas State's Dwayne Frampton might be one of the best wide receivers you've never heard of. Quarterback Ryan Aplin sets the tone for the hurry-up offense and more often than not, he finds Frampton, who caught 90 balls for 1,125 yards and six touchdowns. In five games this season he went for more than 90 yards. NIU might want to find a way to minimize his impact.

Arkansas State (10-2)

Finish the job: If/when Arkansas State gets a lead (and like most people, I'm anticipating a few lead changes during the game), the Red Wolves would be wise to keep going for the jugular because the Huskies won't go away. In the MAC title game, they erased a 20-0 halftime deficit en route to a 23-20 victory over Ohio, meaning they can score fast (16 points in the fourth quarter) and their defense, despite giving up a lot of points, can make plays when its back is against the wall.

Ignore the coaching shuffle: Hugh Freeze is gone -- off to Ole Miss more than a month ago. Interim coach David Gunn, who has been with the program for 10 seasons, has nurtured the team through this transitional period while former Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn waits on the other side to take over his new squad. That's a lot for college kids to soak in. But Gunn has already said there won't be any changes to what the Red Wolves are going to do. Continuity is key, and all of the external distractions are exactly that: distractions.

Accept the inevitable, but not too much: Harnish is going to get his yards -- be they through the air or on the ground. Probably both. The Northern Illinois quarterback is eighth nationally in total offense, 12th nationally in passing efficiency and is Northern Illinois' leading rusher at 106.3 yards per game. Trying to eradicate his production completely is futile. But they can't let him go off for 229 on the ground like he did against Western Michigan, or 181 like he did against Ball State, or else it's going to spell trouble.
In a bowl season that has already had an insane amount of offense, why not one more before the expected defensive slugfest in the national championship game? Northern Illinois and Arkansas State are two of the hottest teams in the country and both know how to score. Expect mayhem in Mobile, Ala.

Who to watch: Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish is a true, dual-threat, having contributed to 37 touchdowns this season -- 26 in the air and 11 on the ground. The MAC offensive player of the year owns 20 different school records and has six games this season with 100 or more rushing yards this season. He completed 62.9 percent of his passes, throwing for 2,942 yards and rushing for 1,382. For perspective -- that's more rushing yards in the regular season than Denard Robinson -- and he leads all quarterbacks in rushing.

What to watch: The fireworks, what else? NIU, the MAC champs, ranks 13th nationally in scoring, at 38.3 points per game. The Red Wolves, champions of the Sun Belt, aren't far behind, at 33.5 points per game. But here's the kicker -- Arkansas State has a defense to match, allowing less than 20 points per game on the season. And the Red Wolves don't exactly have a slouch at quarterback. Ryan Aplin, the Sun Belt player of the year, completed 65.6 percent of his passes, and over his past four games, he has eight touchdowns to three interceptions.

Why to watch: Who has the nation's second-longest win streak behind LSU? That's right, Arkansas State. The Red Wolves have won nine in a row. Not far behind are the Huskies, winners of eight straight. This is just one of three non-BCS games that features two 10-win teams. A couple of 10-win teams -- both getting votes in the top 25? The question should be, why not watch?

Prediction: Northern Illinois 38, Arkansas State 31. For the record, this is not a pick I feel great about. These are two very evenly matched teams. But the fact that NIU is playing in its fourth consecutive bowl game and Arkansas State's coaching situations is all over the map makes me lean toward the Huskies in what should be a fantastically entertaining ball game. Bowl

December, 4, 2011
Arkansas State Red Wolves (10-2) vs. Northern Illinois Huskies (10-3)

Jan. 8, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Arkansas State take by college football blogger Matt Fortuna: The Red Wolves' 45-14 win Saturday over Troy made them the first team in Sun Belt Conference history to win 10 regular-season games. Hugh Freeze became just the 14th FBS first-year head coach to win 10 regular-season games. In addition, by going 8-0 in conference play, Arkansas State is just the third school in Sun Belt history to go undefeated in conference play.

The Red Wolves have their first 10-win season since 1986 and are on a nine-game winning streak for the first time since 1975. They won seven games by double-digits, their most since 1987. And they have done it behind both sides of the ball, ranking 25th in total offense and 20th in total defense.

Wide receiver Dwayne Frampton has rewritten the school record book, amassing a school-record 1,125 receiving yards on 90 catches this season. His 159 career catches are a school record. His five 100-yard receiving games this year are tied for most in a single season in school history.

Defensively, the Red Wolves have held six opponents below 20 points and seven below 100 rushing yards, and have 18 interceptions, tied for fifth in the nation.

NIU take from Nation blogger Andrea Adelson: Not again, right? Every time Northern Illinois had gotten into the MAC title game, it ended in disappointment for the Huskies.

They were back in it this year after losing a heartbreaker in 2010, and found themselves down 20-0 to Ohio at one point in the second half. But quarterback Chandler Harnish willed his team to a win, and the defense came up with huge plays as the Huskies rallied for a 23-20 victory, tying the largest comeback in school history. Northern Illinois can call itself conference champions for the second time, and have posted back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time in school history.

Northern Illinois also is one of just five teams among the non-AQs to have at least six wins in five straight seasons.

Perhaps most impressive about the championship is this: The Huskies did it with a first-year coach in Dave Doeren and nine new starters on defense. Plus, they lost MVP running back Chad Spann. Without him, Harnish picked up his game and won MAC Offensive Player of the Year honors, setting a school record with more than 4,000 yards of total offense, and adding 37 touchdowns.

Harnish, always a threat out of the backfield, had more than 1,000 yards on the ground -- the 12th time in 13 seasons the Huskies had somebody go for more than 1,000 yards rushing. Jasmin Hopkins replaced Spann in the backfield and ran for 932 yards and 15 touchdowns. Linebacker Pat Schiller leads the way with 108 tackles, including 10 for loss. This is a team that is generally involved in some pretty entertaining and close games. Seven games have been decided by a touchdown or less -- five by a field goal or less.