Monday, December 18

It's the most you'll ever read about the Poinsettia Bowl

Northern Illinois @ (25) TCU - Poinsettia Bowl, 12/19

How Northern Illinois Got Here
Aside from the obvious (on the legs of Garrett Wolfe), it was a relatively up-and-down season for the Huskies. The MAC doesn't get a ton of credit for being an even conference, but it is; the talent level obviously isn't that of the major conferences, but they've also had 5 different champions in the last 5 years. (But that's another post in itself.) NIU opened with two losses against Ohio teams (Ohio State and Ohio), but after that they rolled off 4 consecutive wins. Of course, the team performs only as well as Wolfe does, and he struggled though the middle of the season - and the Huskies lost 3 of 4, which pretty much killed any chances they had of going to a decent bowl. Still, they rebounded well by winning their last two, handing Central Michigan their only MAC loss of the season.
Best Win: 31-10 v. Central Michigan, 11/17
Worst Loss: 13-17 v. Toledo, 11/7

How NIU Operates
When you have the leading rusher in the country in Garrett Wolfe, you're probably going to do everything you can to make sure he gets a lot of carries. That's about the long and short of the offensive gameplan. QB Phil Horvath isn't terrible; he doesn't pass a whole lot (predictable), but he's at least decently effective when he does. Defensively, they ... don't do much, really. They have a good rush D (2nd in the MAC), but they're only in the top third nationally. Their pass defense is horrid, though - next to last in the MAC and 104th nationally.

How TCU Got Here
It's amazing what happens to your national perception when you beat Texas Tech. It's more impressive watching your national perception deflate after losing consecutive games to BYU and Utah. This is an interesting team - those two losses were the only losses they had all year, and they've very quietly re-entered the Top 25. However, it could easily be argued that most of those wins weren't over good teams; Wyoming was their best win during the 8-game winning streak - and it's not like there's a ton of teams clamoring to be ranked at this point in the season anyway.

How TCU Operates
TCU is pretty much the embodiment of the idea that good rushing offense plus good rush defense wins games. They'll rely on Aaron Brown and Lonta Hobbs (who is quickly approaching 27, from what I remember of him - he's been around a while) on the ground and Jeff Ballard through the air. Ballard isn't terrible - he's better than Horvath, which isn't exactly a huge endorsement, but there you go. Their pass D is good but unspectacular - they're solidly a top third team. However, their rush D is 4th in the nation.
Best Win: 12-3 v. Texas Tech, 9/16
Worst Loss: 7-20 @ Utah, 10/5

5 Things to Watch When NIU Has the Ball (or is punting)
1: Garrett Wolfe's effectiveness against the TCU front seven. Actually, their front eight. Wolfe will see a lot of 8-man plus fronts in this game, and he has to be effective in making that extra defender miss in order to consistently pile up yardage.
2: Phil Horvath's ability to get pressure off of Wolfe. It's likely that NIU will rely on play-action passing to freeze the TCU defenders if/when Wolfe establishes himself; in the meantime, Horvath will have to make plays to keep the corners and safeties honest.
3: TCU's ability to contain Wolfe. They haven't seen a rusher like him all season; Air Force has the best rushing *attack* they've seen all year, but in this case rushing attack is not the same as rusher. What's of note is that the two best MWC rushing teams that weren't Air Force and TCU were BYU and Utah - the two teams to beat TCU. (Of course, both teams also have good passing games.)
4: Britt Davis and Marcus Perez's ability to get separation against the TCU defense. Perez is the TD threat while Davis is the possession receiver, but neither is used that often - Perez gets about 3 catches a game while Davis gets about 5. NIU uses a ton of receivers, so any of them can step up - but one of them has to.
5: The "defensive struggle performance" stats. While NIU's punting isn't that great, if the game gets into a field position battle, NIU might not be entirely toast - they have a good return game and a good FG kicker in Chris Nendick.

5 Things to Watch When TCU Has the Ball (or is punting)
1: NIU's ability to shut down either Brown or Hobbs. If both of them are able to get their normal yardage, then NIU is going to be in for a long day.
2: Jeff Ballard's dual-threat ability. While Ballard isn't much of a runner (only about 34 ypg), he does have 5 rushing TDs on the year and a long of 23 yards. That's just enough running ability to be able to keep the Huskies honest - provided he's able to get the time to run.
3: Aaron Brown's catch-and-run ability. Brown's the quick-strike rusher - and as a result, look for TCU to get him the ball on a few screens and hope for the best. TCU doesn't run many screens, but if their line can occupy NIU's front seven, Brown can probably take one to the house.
4: Harmon, Massey, and Reagan. Harmon's the primary, Reagan's the deep threat, and Massey's the third option. But remember that the NIU pass defense isn't anything to write home about. Look for one of these guys to have a big game - and if more than one has a big game, look for TCU to win.
5: Ball control. It's not a guarantee of victory, but TCU does control the ball nearly 32 minutes per game, which may be important - but they do need to have some measure of ball control, since it's not like they're designed for quick strikes.

What to Expect in the Game
I'm not sold that NIU can shut down either Brown or Hobbs and two of the three receivers. Either they'll shut down the receivers and Hobbs / Brown will run over them or Hobbs will get shut down and Harmon will have 6 catches for 100 yards (and Reagan 5/110, etc.) - you get the point. Meanwhile, I think that Wolfe will tear up the TCU defense. However, Horvath won't be able to provide a truly effective compliment to Wolfe and TCU will walk away with a win.