UAB Blazers and Northern Illinois Huskies Face Off in Cheribuni Boca Raton Bowl

Boy, am I glad to be done with the “Cheribundi Tart Cherry Boca Raton Bowl” or CTCBRB for short.

That just took too long; I’ll just go with “Cheribundi Boca Bowl” now.

So what is this game? The surface would suggest that you have to very stout defensive teams who are going to try to impose their will – especially via ball control offense – and grind their way to a victory.

In reality, that’s a bit more true of one team than the other,

Northern Illinois

The Huskies come into this bowl season with a 6-2 record in one-possession games, which means without a strong pass rush and some turnover luck, these Huskies might not have won the MAC Championship, and might have missed out on a bowl game entirely.

This is a team whose offense (115th in S&P+) struggled all season long, especially when it came to producing big plays, so they were fortunate that they rarely got behind by a lot.

Of course, when they did… well, they were still successful. They finished the season 3-2 in games where they trailed by 10+ points at any point during the game, but the first of those three wins, the deficit was gone by halftime.

Most of the defenses NIU struggled against were great at preventing big plays – except they somehow managed only 9 points through three quarters against an Ohio defense that ranked 107th in S&P+ before a fourth-quarter comeback.

The two offenses the Huskies had their most success against where a Toledo defense that wasn’t quite as bad as Ohio’s, and a Buffalo defense whose lone Achilles’ heel is big pass plays.

Three guesses how NIU got back into that one.

The two times that NIU’s defense struggled all season were against two teams (Florida State and Buffalo) that are more explosive than they are efficient, and who pass the ball better than they run it.

The real question to figure out, is whether Ohio (9th in offensive S&P+, 107th in defensive) nearly beat the Huskies and Toledo (17/95) didn’t simply because of turnover margin and not anything else. The Huskies were plus-three in turnovers against Ohio and minus-two against the Rockets.

Northern Illinois is a style we’ve seen before. They like to pressure the quarterback – their 50 sacks are tops in the country, with 25 total just for Sutton Smith and Josh Corcoran – and do their best to get a lead, force you to pass by being strong and aggressive up front, and hope that the risk is worth the reward (no big pass plays allowed).

UAB Blazers

UAB’s offense runs through Spencer Brown.

It also runs a little bit through Luscious Stanley, Jarrion Street, AJ Erdely and Tyler Johnston, but mostly through Brown.

Spencer passed Jordan Howard for second on the all-time rushing yards list at UAB during the conference championship and now sits 293 yards behind Joe Webb for the record. He is also two rushing touchdowns away from taking that record from Darrin Reaves.

The offense didn’t do anything at a spectacular level, but was average to above average at everything, especially in preventing sacks. The Blazers gave up seven sacks in their initial matchup with MTSU when nearly their entire starting offensive line was out but only gave up 16 sacks in their other 12 games.

The Blazer defense had a good year. They had such a good year that they graded out as the 12th worst defense in the country at surrendering big plays but still finished 27th in Defensive S&P+.

Honestly, the defense might have cracked the top 20 if they weren’t so bad at giving up big plays, especially on passing downs. NIU had 50 sacks, but UAB’s 43 placed them tied for third in the country, which is just as impressive.

The Blazer offense struggled to produce big plays in the running game, and the passing game was hampered by inaccurate and/or dropped throws all season, but the team found a way to get to 10 wins anyway.

The Blazers had two games where the offense and defense both struggled a lot, and that was Coastal Carolina and Texas A&M. Both of these teams were better at running than passing on offense and were more efficient than explosive.

Middle Tennessee was a pass-heavy offense that relied on big plays (and almost killed the Blazers via swing routes to the halfback in the flat), but they were the only team to succeed against the Blazers in that fashion

Prediction

There’s a reason that statements like “the team that establishes the run will win”, “I think this game will be won in the trenches”, and “this game is going to come down to turnovers” have become so cliche.

There’s truth in them thar statements.

UAB went 4-3 when losing the turnover battle, and the four wins were Savannah State, UTEP, Rice, and Southern Miss.

While NIU and UAB finished first and third in the nation in sacks recorded by their defenses, UAB only gave up 16 sacks all year outside of that game, while NIU was one of 11 teams to give up at least 38 sacks

These two teams have regularly been the best pass rush their opponent has faced – Buffalo and Western Michigan gave up 10 sacks in eight quarters against the Huskies, but only 19 sacks in their other 23 games.

That said, NIU needed every one of those sacks to engineer a 20-0 second half and beat Buffalo by a point, and they recorded six sacks and a defensive touchdown against WMU and still couldn’t beat them.

They also recorded four sacks against an Ohio team that allowed 15 in their other 11 games, and didn’t lead until the last 5 minutes

It’s true of every team that turnovers can kill, but when your general process is to control the clock and reduce possessions with your rushing offense, then use a strong pass rush and turnover production to ruin what few possessions your opponents get, that stat matters even more.

In this matchup, I’m giving the nod to the Blazers. In 23 games against G5 opponents, Spencer Brown has rushed for 100+ yards 12 times and come close on two others. As long as UAB’s offense is healthy, they are hard to stop across four full quarters.

NIU has spent this season leaning heavily on their defense to generate a pass rush that gets their opponents fearful of running anything that takes too long to develop and forcing them to execute long scoring drives that they don’t have enough time to complete because NIU’s rushing offense is on the field so long.

Both teams will be facing the best front seven and pass rush they’ve seen all year, but only one team has struggled against much less successful pass rushing teams this year, and that’s the losing team.

UAB 34, NIU 20

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