Boca Raton Bowl: Marshall, NIU feature high-powered offenses

Dr. Saturday

Boca Raton Bowl
Marshall (12-1) vs. Northern Illinois (11-2)
Boca Raton, Fla.
Dec 23, 2014

It’s a welcomed sight to see two of the best Group of Five teams facing off in a bowl game.

Tuesday’s Boca Raton Bowl matchup between Conference USA champions Marshall (12-1) and Northern Illinois (11-2), the MAC champs, is also the only non-New Year’s bowl game to feature two conference champions, so we should be in for a treat.

The fact is, both teams could have been representing the Group of Five on New Year’s Day, Marshall especially. The Thundering Herd’s quest for an undefeated season fell short in a 67-66 overtime loss to Western Kentucky in the regular season finale, allowing Mountain West champions Boise State to leapfrog them in the College Football Playoff rankings.

Marshall’s route was a lot clearer, but the Huskies played themselves into consideration for a New Year’s bowl by winning seven straight games, including a dominant 51-17 MAC championship win over Bowling Green. If Boise lost its own conference title game, NIU could very well have jumped both Boise and Marshall.

Nov 28, 2014; Huntington, WV, USA; Marshall Thundering Herd quarterback Rakeem Cato (12) practices before the game against Western Kentucky Hiltoppers at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. (Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports)
Nov 28, 2014; Huntington, WV, USA; Marshall Thundering Herd quarterback Rakeem Cato (12) practices before the game against Western Kentucky Hiltoppers at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. (Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports)

Nonetheless, this game features two high-powered offenses. Marshall was fifth in the country this year in scoring at 45.1 points per game with record-setting quarterback Rakeem Cato running the show. In his final season with the program, Cato has 3,622 passing yards and 37 touchdowns along with 457 yards and six scores on the ground coming into Tuesday’s game.

Cato’s top target is high school teammate Tommy Shuler, another senior. After catching more than 100 balls the past two seasons, Shuler’s numbers were down a bit, but he still hauled in 74 catches for 953 yards and eight scores.

Cato also relied on 243-pound junior tailback Devon Johnson (1,636 yards on 8.6 ypc, 16 TDs) this season, but he struggled with a knee injury in Marshall’s last two games.

Like Marshall, the Huskies can certainly run the ball, too, but its carries are more spread around. Senior Cameron Stingily led the team with 895 yards and 13 touchdowns on 175 carries, while sophomore quarterback Drew Hare did his best Jordan Lynch impression all season with 850 yards and eight scores along with 2,097 yards and 17 touchdowns through the air. Additionally, Joel Bouagnon (573 yards, 5 TDs) and Akeem Daniels (383 yards, TD) offer a nice change of pace.

This game will come down to timely defensive stops and turnovers. Marshall turned the ball over a combined eight times over the past two games and forced four. Northern Illinois turned the ball over four times and forced 10 turnovers in the same span.


Marshall (-10)


Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato will wear No. 31 instead of his usual No. 12 to honor junior linebacker Evan McKelvey, who suffered a torn ACL early in the season. 


Graham: I’m actually really looking forward to this game because I think both of these teams had a shot to play in a New Years Six Bowl. NIU definitely comes in as the hotter team and the Huskies are going to be amped for this team. I think Marshall is going to have a little bit of a letdown after missing out on the NYE6 Bowl and an undefeated season. NIU 42, Marshall 31.

Nick: Futile resistance is not only a great bad name, but it's an apt description of the two defenses in this game against the No. 2 ranked offense (Marshall) and the No. 36 ranked offense (Northern Illinois). We'll take No. 2 in what will be a thoroughly entertaining game. Or a 10-7 struggle. Marshall 45, NIU 41.

Sam: Marshall can score with the best of them, but it didn't play its best football down the stretch with a loss to WKU and a narrow victory over La. Tech. On the other hand, NIU is riding a seven-game winning streak and looked great in the MAC title game. I'll take the Huskies. NIU 45, Marshall 34.

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Sam Cooper is a contributor for the Yahoo Sports blogs. Have a tip? Email him or follow him on Twitter!

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