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NIU can frustrate suddenly mortal Boise State in the Poinsettia Bowl

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Boise State is a comfortable favorite over NIU in the Poinsettia Bowl, in part because of NIU's quarterback injuries. But if the Huskies' offense can remain competent, the defense is built to frustrate Boise State's freshman quarterback.

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Two of the most recognizable names in the group-of-five ranks are dealing with a decent amount of disappointment at the moment. One just missed out on a fourth MAC title in five years, in part because of impressive quarterback injuries. The other had dreams of 12-0 and finished 8-4. This is a motivation bowl: who has it?

1. Does NIU have a quarterback?

Full-season averages are incredibly useful when it comes to getting a read for a game, making projections, etc. But sometimes they're less useful than others.

NIU played in its sixth consecutive MAC title game on Dec. 5; in a league designed for parity, that is an incredible accomplishment. It's one made even more impressive by the fact that the Huskies have pulled this off with three different head coaches. Jerry Kill led NIU to the first division title of the streak, then Dave Doeren took over for the next two, and Rod Carey has captained the last three.

This one was pretty tricky, though. Starting quarterback Drew Hare, who struggled mightily in a three-game losing streak against Ohio State (excusable), Boston College (ditto) and CMU (less so), had begun to play incredible ball before he got hurt. He had completed 73 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and no picks over a three-game span before an Achilles injury against Toledo ended his season.

With original backup Anthony Maddie already out for the season, redshirt freshman Ryan Graham played well enough to preserve a victory over Toledo, giving the Huskies control of the MAC West yet again. Graham steered the ship reasonably well until he suffered his own leg injury against Ohio. NIU lost to the Bobcats, and while the Huskies still won the division because Toledo was upset by WMU, they needed more offensive firepower than they had against Bowling Green. Freshman walk-on Tommy Fiedler threw three interceptions in a 34-14 loss.

Graham is supposedly healthy enough to go in San Diego. He's a little bit better running the ball than Hare, though he was more mistake-prone in the passing game, with higher interception and sack rates. If he can just be steady enough to keep the offense out of the defense's way, that's a start.

NIU's defense has been sound for most of the season. The Huskies rank 42nd in Def. S&P+, a bend-don't-break unit that prevents big plays and does an outstanding job shutting down scoring opportunities. The defensive front isn't particularly disruptive, but an exciting secondary led by Shawun Lurry (first in FBS with nine interceptions, second in passes defensed with 23) could force mistakes from Boise State's freshman quarterback Brett Rypien. But none of that matters if NIU has no stability behind center.

2. Does Boise State have any motivation?

A bowl at the end of a frustrating season can serve as an opportunity for redemption, a reminder of upside for the long offseason. It can also be a formality, something you didn't want to play, something that won't make up for the frustrating losses you suffered. You never really know ahead of time which one it's going to be.

I'm not alone in this regard, but I whiffed on Boise State this year. In my offseason BSU preview, I noted some red flags but talked myself into basically everything else.

This is a loaded team, and I can't wait to see it in action. Quarterback and running back are obvious concerns, but between the depth of candidates and the ace coaching staff, I can't make myself worry. Ryan Finley will likely be fine at QB, and whichever running back can hold onto the ball will see big holes thanks to the line (and a defense distracted by the receivers).

There was minimal concern at running back. Jeremy McNichols took over for Jay Ajayi and did well -- he was a little bit all-or-nothing but proved as explosive as almost any feature back in the country.

Unfortunately, Finley threw three interceptions in a last-second loss to BYU, then got hurt. Brett Rypien played like a freshman at times, the secondary was wrecked by injury, the defensive front wasn't as good as it probably should have been, and the defense as a whole played efficiently but gave away enormous, frequent big plays.

A 5-1 start melted into a 3-3 finish. BSU had won eight of nine all-time against New Mexico and Air Force but lost to both teams at home before rallying to get past San Jose State and finish 8-4.

Whether the bowl is a spark or a letdown, Boise State is set up well moving forward. Rypien will still end up throwing for more than 3,000 yards, McNichols is a sophomore, four of the top five receiving targets are scheduled to return, and so are six of the top nine tacklers. But after looking spectacular for most of the last two months of 2014, BSU failed to build on that in 2015. After years of looking unassailable, the Broncos are mortal.

3. Key Stat(s): Field position and finishing drives

Check out the monstrous stat preview here.

Spread: Boise State -8
S&P+ Projection: Boise State 27.8, Northern Illinois 26.2
Team Sites: One Bronco Nation Under God, Hustle Belt (NIU)
Five Factors
Category Boise State offense Northern Illinois defense Northern Illinois offense Boise State defense
FIELD POSITION 31.9 (30) 31.7 (105) 31.8 (32) 27.4 (21)
FINISHING DRIVES 4.4 (88) 3.8 (12) 5.0 (40) 4.6 (57)

The "little things" portion of the Five Factors will probably show us how this game will go. Boise State has been an excellent field position team, and no matter the quarterback, NIU has been rather mediocre in this regard. Part of this can be explained through special teams (BSU grades out better than NIU), and part can be explained through efficiency -- the Broncos' offense is more efficient than NIU's, and when Boise's defense fails, it fails quickly and substantially, leaving plenty of time for three-and-outs.

BSU has an advantage in one Little Thing, but NIU's mastered the other. The Huskies' offense has been decent at finishing drives, averaging five points per scoring opportunity. But the advantage comes on the other side -- despite McNichols, Boise State has frequently stalled short of the end zone, and NIU has one of the best red zone defenses in the country. With NIU's QB issues, you figure Boise State will probably create more scoring chances than the Huskies. But if the Broncos are kicking field goals, the Huskies will still have a chance to flip the script around.

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