The College Bowl Season is upon us, and Pylon University is bringing the breakdowns on offense, defense, and special teams, along with the sport’s traditions and great moments. In this edition, it’s the Boca Raton Bowl preview, one of five games this week that take us through Christmas Eve.
WHAT: Boca Raton Bowl
WHEN: Tuesday, December 23 – 6:00 p.m. EST (ESPN)
WHERE: FAU Stadium, Boca Raton, FL
To quote Frank Costanza, “we’re going to Del Boca Vista!”
Or, Boca Raton, to be precise.
The inaugural bowl game in this resort city matches up two conference champions. Marshall entered its regular season finale unbeaten, but a thrilling 67-66 overtime loss to Western Kentucky erased any dreams of a more prominent bowl bid. The Thundering Herd bounced back with a come-from-behind 26-23 win over Louisiana Tech in the Conference USA championship game, securing the conference title.
On the other side of the field, Northern Illinois captured its third Mid-American Conference crown since 2011 with a 51-17 victory over Bowling Green. Rod Carey’s team suffered only two losses in 2014: a blowout at the hands of Arkansas and a 17-point loss to Central Michigan.
When Marshall Has the Football
Rakeem Cato took an eraser to Chad Pennington’s name in the Marshall record books. The senior quarterback completed more than 58% of his passes for 3,622 yards and 37 touchdowns with only 13 interceptions in 2014. Cato is the only quarterback in Thundering Herd history to throw 30+ touchdown passes in three consecutive seasons, and has a touchdown pass in 45 consecutive games, an FBS record. The triggerman enters his final game with 13,798 yards passing for his career and 128 touchdowns. Tommy Shuler, Cato’s favorite target this season despite his diminutive stature (5’7”, 188 pounds), hauled in 74 passes for 953 yards and eight touchdowns in 2014.
While Cato is lethal from the pocket, he is just as dangerous running with the football. Witness Cato breaking ankles on this touchdown run off of the read option against Akron:
Devon Johnson churns out the yardage on the ground for the Thundering Herd. A house of a back at 6’1” and 243 lbs, the junior gained 1,636 ground yards this season on 191 carries with 16 touchdowns. Johnson eclipsed the 100-yard mark in nine of his 12 games this season. An injury suffered against Western Kentucky slowed Johnson for the following week’s C-USA title game, but the Doak Walker finalist should be 100% for Tuesday night.
A talented pair of safeties ‒ Marlon Moore and Dechane Durante ‒ sets the tone for the NIU defense. Moore logged a team-high 93 tackles this year while Durante secured four interceptions to lead the Huskies. Rasheen Lemon jumpstarts the linebackers, with 86 tackles to his credit on the season including a team-best 52 solo stops. When the Huskies dial up the pressure, they turn to senior defensive end Jason Meehan, who led the defense with seven sacks and 9.5 tackles for a loss.
When Northern Illinois Has the Football
Exit Jordan Lynch, enter Drew Hare. The sophomore quarterback started the final 11 games of the season, and turned in very efficient numbers. Hare completed 179 of 299 passes for 2,097 yards and 17 touchdowns. More importantly, the signal-caller protected the football, throwing only two interceptions.
The strength of this team, however, is the ground game. The Huskies average 252 yards per contest running the football, tops in the MAC and 14th in the nation. Running back Cameron Stingily is part of the two-headed attack, and leads the team with 895 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2014. The senior displays a solid combination of speed, vision and strength, shown here on this run in the MAC championship game against Bowling Green:
Stingily does a great job of finding the hole, making a quick cut to get into the running lane, and using speed to run away from defenders.
The other half of the two-pronged approach? Hare. The quarterback racked up 850 yards on the ground with eight touchdowns. His longest run of the season was this 78-yard score against Eastern Michigan:
The QB takes the shotgun snap and runs a simple draw through the A gap. Hare blows by the entire defense for the score.
Looking to slow this run game is the tandem of linebacker Neville Hewitt and defensive end Arnold Blackmon. Hewitt tallied 114 tackles on the season with 12 of the stops going for a loss, as well as 4.5 sacks. Blackmon led the team with eight sacks, but also helps in run support:
The defensive end chases down the running back on the read option play to the other side of the field, punching out the football and forcing the turnover.
From Marshall, Cato and defensive end James Rouse are considered potential NFL draftees. Northern Illinois’s Durante might hear his name called on draft day.
Marshall came within one point of an unbeaten season. The Thundering Herd finish the year strong in a thrilling contest.
Marshall 41, Northern Illinois 38
All video and images courtesy ESPN.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.