Arkansas St. at Northern Illinois

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By JEFF MEZYDLO, STATS Senior Writer Monday, Jan 2, 2012 Kickoff: 9:00 pm EST Sun Jan 8, 2012

Aside from the No. 1 team in the nation, there are not many schools playing better than Arkansas State or Northern Illinois heading into the final bowl before the BCS championship game.

Two of the country’s hottest teams take the field when the Red Wolves and Huskies meet for the first time in more than 15 years at the Bowl on Sunday night in Mobile, Ala.

One night before top-ranked LSU puts its 13-0 record on the line in a rematch with No. 2 Alabama in the BCS title game, Arkansas State and Northern Illinois look to extend two of the other lengthier winning streaks in the nation.

Coming off an undefeated run through the Sun Belt Conference to record its first 10-win season since 1986, Arkansas State (10-2) has won nine straight since losing 26-7 at then-No. 13 Virginia Tech on Sept. 17.

Northern Illinois (10-3), fresh off its first Mid-American Conference championship since 1983, has won eight in a row since opening league play with a 48-41 defeat at Central Michigan on Oct. 1.

Both teams received votes in the most recent AP poll.

“It’s a great opportunity to showcase our players and our program on national television the night before the national championship game,” first-year coach Dave Doeren told Northern Illinois’ official website.

Representatives of this bowl may be even more excited considering Northern Illinois averages 38.3 points and Arkansas State 33.5. This matchup has the potential to feature more scoring than the classic 2001 GMAC Bowl in Mobile when Marshall and East Carolina combined for 125 points in double overtime.

The 64-61 Marshall victory still remains the highest-scoring bowl game of all-time.

“We are looking forward to the possibility of breaking that record this year with Arkansas State and Northern Illinois,” Bowl president Jerry Silverstein said.

That’s possible considering NIU has scored 40 or more points in nine games, including a 63-60 win at Toledo on Nov. 1. The Huskies rank 10th nationally with 481.8 yards per game and ninth with an average of 247.6 rushing yards.

They boast one of the nation’s most versatile quarterbacks in senior Chandler Harnish, the MAC offensive player of the year who owns 20 school records. Harnish has completed 62.9 percent of his passes for a career-high 2,942 yards and rushed for 1,382 while having a hand in 37 touchdowns - 11 rushing and 26 passing.

“His body of work stands apart as far as what he has done for our team on and off the field,” Doeren said. “To have a guy that has done as much for his football team is very special.”

Harnish was 17 of 26 for 300 yards with a touchdown pass and ran for 72 yards and two TDs on 10 carries in a 40-17 win over Fresno State in the 2010 Humanitarian Bowl.

Three Huskies receivers have caught at least 39 passes, led by senior Nathan Palmer, who set career highs with 46 receptions, 683 yards and seven TDs.

Though NIU’s offense is hard to stop, its defense has had its share of problems keeping the opposition in check. The Huskies rank in the bottom third of the nation allowing 31.1 points per game. However, they did not give up a second-half point in rallying from 20 down to beat Ohio 23-20 in the MAC championship game Dec. 2.

The Huskies now face a major challenge against an Arkansas State squad that’s averaged 38.3 points over the last six games.

Like Harnish, Sun Belt offensive player of the year Ryan Aplin proved to be a dual threat by passing for 3,235 yards with 18 touchdowns and running for a team-high 605 with nine scores for the Red Wolves.

Aplin’s favorite target is senior Dwayne Frampton, who set a school record with 1,125 receiving yards on 90 catches.

Sun Belt defensive player of the year Brandon Joiner ranks among the national leaders with 12 sacks. The senior defensive end paces a unit that gives up 19.3 points per game.

The Red Wolves hope to continue their success without coach Hugh Freeze, who left to take the head coaching job at Mississippi. Though former Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn was named Arkansas State’s next coach Dec. 14, assistant David Gunn will guide the team in Mobile.

“Everything is still OK at Arkansas State,” Gunn said. “It’s time for us to move forward and that’s what we’ll do. We’ve got to continue to improve on some of the things that we’re doing.”

With a 4-7 bowl record, NIU is making its fourth straight postseason appearance. Arkansas State, meanwhile, fell 31-19 to Southern Mississippi in the 2005 New Orleans Bowl in its only previous bowl game.

NIU won 31-30 on Sept. 21, 1996, to improve to 6-1 against Arkansas State.

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