BOCA RATON BOWL STORYLINES
1. The inaugural Boca Raton Bowl features two conference champions - Northern Illinois from the Mid-American Conference facing off against Marshall, which is representing Conference USA. “Outside of the New Year’s bowls, this is probably the best matchup in the country,” Huskies coach Rod Carey told reporters as his team prepares for the trip to Boca Raton, Fla. “I don’t think you have a ton of the champions (versus) champions, outside of the playoff four. Absolutely it adds juice.” Added Marshall athletic director Mike Hamrick: "You’re talking about two teams that won 23 football games this season. I’m not sure there are many bowls out there with two teams that have won 23 games.”
2. Northern Illinois won the MAC championship with a convincing 51-17 triumph against Bowling Green, scoring more than 50 points for the third time this season and holding its opponent to 24 or less for the sixth straight game. The Huskies enter this matchup having won seven straight contests since a 34-17 loss to Central Michigan on Oct. 11. The Thundering Herd, meanwhile, came as close as possible to an undefeated regular season, losing only to Western Kentucky 67-66 in overtime on Nov. 28.
3. The Boca Raton Bowl matches up two of the best running attacks in the nation, with each team ranking in the top 20 in rushing yards per game. The seventh-ranked Thundering Herd are led by Devon Johnson, a junior who has rushed for 1,636 yards and 16 TDs this season, although he has been limited to seven carries for 63 yards in the last two weeks due to a shoulder injury. The Huskies rank 14th nationally in rushing with a balanced attack led by Cameron Stingily (895 yards, 13 TDs) and quarterback Drew Hare (850 yards, eight TDs).
TV: 6 p.m. ET, ESPN. LINE: Marshall -10.5.
ABOUT MARSHALL (12-1, 7-1 C-USA): Only four teams in the nation scored more points per game than the Thundering Herd (45.1) - who also have a solid defense, having given up 18 points or fewer in nine of their 13 games. Rakeem Cato has enjoyed a fine senior season, throwing for 3,622 yards - including 308 in a 26-23 victory over Louisiana Tech in the conference title game - as well as 37 touchdowns, with two coming in that triumph. Tommy Shuler has more than twice as many receptions (74) as any of his teammates (Eric Frohnapfel, 35) and has recorded his three highest yardage totals of 2014 in the last three games, during which he's averaging nine catches for 116 yards.
ABOUT NORTHERN ILLINOIS (11-2, 7-1 MAC): Hare passed for two touchdowns and ran for another against Bowling Green, while Stingily had 116 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Hare has 17 TDs against only two interceptions, with Da'Ron Brown (64 catches, 1,002 yards, six TDs) being his primary target. Northern Illinois, the only team in the country with at least 11 victories in each of the last five seasons, will take the field against Marshall without punt returner Chad Beebe, who broke his arm in the MAC title game.
PREDICTION: Northern Illinois 37, Marshall 33