While Northern Illinois is focused on averting a third straight bowl loss, South Florida’s biggest concern heading into its fifth straight postseason game is to avoid being consumed by an off-field distraction.
The Huskies and Bulls face each other for the third time when they meet in the International Bowl at Toronto’s Rogers Centre on Saturday.
A second straight bowl appearance and fourth in six seasons has Northern Illinois (7-5) feeling confident despite losing its final two games to Ohio and Central Michigan, the Mid-American Conference title game representatives.
“It’s the first time that NIU will be in back-to-back bowl games as an FBS school, which is a huge accomplishment for our seniors and another step forward for our program,” Huskies second-year coach Jerry Kill told the school’s official Web site.
“This is a tremendous opportunity for our program versus a tremendous opponent as we know South Florida is a very good football program. It will be a great challenge for our team.”
The Huskies, however, have dropped two straight bowl games since winning the 2004 Silicon Valley Classic.
They will face a South Florida team that has had to answer questions about a report that coach Jim Leavitt grabbed sophomore Joel Miller by the throat and hit him in the face during halftime of a game Nov. 21. The school has retained an expert in workplace issues to assist with an investigation of the accusation.
Leavitt, the only coach in the 13-year history of the program, said the accusations were false.
“I’m appalled at it. It’s absolutely not true,” Leavitt told the St. Petersburg Times. “It’s so far out there. I’m very disappointed something like this would be written.”
Miller’s father backtracked on comments in which he said Leavitt “crossed the line,” later saying he believed “there was no malicious intent to hit anyone.” The incident, though, still casts a shadow over a team that looked to be on its way to a more prestigious January bowl after starting 5-0 for the second straight season.
South Florida also lost five of its last seven for the second straight year, dropping its final two against then-No. 19 Miami and Connecticut.
Still, the Bulls’ run of five bowl appearances in five years of BCS membership puts them in elite company. Texas, Florida, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Georgia and Georgia Tech are the only other teams to reach a bowl in each year as a member of a BCS conference.
Versatile freshman quarterback B.J. Daniels has done a solid job since senior Matt Grothe suffered a season-ending knee injury in the third game. Daniels has thrown for 1,766 yards with 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions, while rushing for 798 yards and nine scores.
“He’s a courageous competitor,” Leavitt said of Daniels, who rushed for three TDs in the 29-27 defeat at UConn on Dec. 5.
Junior Carlton Mitchell is the school’s all-time leader with 1,554 receiving yards. He has 612 yards this year and needs 50 more to set the South Florida single-season record.
Linemen Jason Pierre-Paul and George Selvie have combined for nine sacks and 24 tackles for loss, leading a defense that ranked third in the Big East at 328.7 yards allowed per contest.
That unit should get a test from a Northern Illinois squad that topped the MAC in rushing at 202.4 yards per game and was second with 30.8 points a contest.
Junior Chad Spann ran for a team-leading 945 yards and scored 20 touchdowns, while backup Me’co Brown added 645 yards and four TDs for the Huskies.
Junior Jake Coffman had 7 1/2 sacks and 12 1/2 tackles for loss as the leader of a defense that was second in the MAC at 21.2 points allowed per game.
The schools have split two meetings, with South Florida posting a 37-6 home victory in 2002 and Northern Illinois winning 20-17 at home in 2001.