6:00 PM EST, ESPN2 – Line: Coastal Carolina -10, Over/Under: 62.5
The season’s marathon of bowls kicks off today with a spicy matchup of non-Power-5 schools, as the newly minted MAC Champion, Northern Illinois Huskies face off against the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers in the Tailgreeter Cure Bowl from Exploria Stadium in Orlando, Florida. One of the many surprises of the 2021 campaign, the rise of Northen Illinois (9-4, 7-2 in MAC) this season was largely unpredicted, for many pundits believed that they would finish where they did a year ago at the bottom of the conference. Indeed, the Huskies were downright terrible last season, finishing a winless 0-6, with half of their six losses decided by seventeen or more points. With that said, like many Head Coaches across the country, Thomas Hammock deserved a mulligan for the outstanding circumstances that was the delayed and truncated 2020 season, and you can tell that he and his coaching staff put in A LOT of work to get this program back where it used to be under the previous regime. The first order of business was improving a miserable offense that ranked last in the Mid-American Conference in both points (24.8) and rushing yards (127.0), along with eighth in total yards (367.5). Hammock and (Offensive Coordinator) Eric Eidsness wanted to become more dynamic and explosive on this side of the football, and they’ve certainly achieved that goal; NIU has averaged 31.5 points per game (43rd in FBS) on a much improved 422.2 total yards, including 187.8 yards through the air and another 234.4 on the ground. The biggest difference has been at Quarterback where Michigan State transfer, Rocky Lombardi (58.1%, 2,416 YDS, 7.7 Y/A, 13 TD, 8 INT) established himself as QB1 early and never let go of the job; the Junior started eight games over the course of three seasons in East Lansing and never managed to make much of an impression, though has certainly found a home in DeKalb, accounting for 2,823 yards and twenty-one touchdowns. One of five different players to rush for 400+ yards this season, Lombardi has proven very adept with his legs, particularly in the red zone where he’s logged eight scores thus far, second-most on the team. With that said, this unit has undergone a great deal of growth this season, for Hammock had one of the youngest teams in the country coming into 2021. (Freshman Tailbacks) Jevyon Ducker (194 CAR, 1,038 YDS, 5.4 Y/A, 3 TD) and Harrison Waylee (101 CAR, 574 YDS, 5.7 Y/A, 4 TD) have each brought some dynamism to the backfield, with the former leading the Huskies with 1,038 yards, while the likes of (Senior) Clint Ratkovich (98 CAR, 448 YDS, 4.6 Y/A, 12 TD) uses his 6′-1″, 228-lb frame to devastating effect in the in short yardage situations, pacing the team with fourteen total touchdowns. Furthermore, (Redshirt Freshman Receiver) Trayvon Rudolph (49 REC, 877 YDS, 17.9 Y/R, 7 TD) has been yet another youngster that has popped on this offense, hauling in forty-nine receptions for 877 yards and seven touchdowns, while also adding another 106 yards and a score on five rushes. Simply put, if there is a big play happening then odds are that Rudloph is involved; the Frosh has averaged a staggering 18.2 yards per touch, while also serving as their chief return man with 351 yards (25.1 Y/R) and a kick return touchdown on fourteen returns. Needless to say, with so many young weapons on hand, the future is bright in Northen Illinois. Hammock’s roster has been built largely on the backs of underclassmen, with seventy-five players arriving to the program either in 2020 or in 2021, making this team the second youngest in the FBS. However, there have been many times in which this team’s youth has gotten them into trouble, particularly in terms of turnovers; NIU has committed seventeen turnovers this season equating to a dismal differential of minus-6, proving to be their downfall in their four losses where they are minus-5 on that front. With that said, the Huskies managed to flip the script in the MAC Championship Game, a rematch with Kent State. Hammock’s troops raced out to a 24-3 lead, returning an interception for a touchdown late in the third quarter before the aforementioned Lombardi would carry the football into the end zone on back-to-back drives to extend their advantage to 38-10. After missing the previous week’s loss at home to Western Michigan (42-21), Lombardi returned with a vengeance rushing for three touchdowns as the eventual conference champions pummeled the Racers on the ground to the tune of 266 yards on sixty-one carries, dominating time of possession, while being aided by a pair of takeaways from the defense. Ducker continued to his torrid form, rushing for 146 yards on twenty-nine attempts, marking the six time in seven games that he’s churned out over 100 rushing yards. The victory was Northern Illinois’ sixth MAC title in the last eleven years and their first since 2018. Today’s appearance in the Tailgreeter Cure Bowl marks the school’s first bowl berth in three years, following a period in which they became postseason mainstays with a dozen bowls in fifteen years. While a win would bring the Huskies their first 10-win campaign since 2014 which would go a long way towards building momentum towards 2022, it would also be their first such victory since 2011, snapping a six-game losing streak in such affairs. Something else to keep an eye on is the future of Hammock; Northern Illinois has long been a steppingstone for bigger jobs, and after this turnaround the 40-year-old has certainly raised his profile and could be off to greener pastures. Each of his three predecessors have moved on to bigger schools, with Jerry Kill going to Minnesota following an 11-3 campaign back in 2010, while Dave Doeren headed to North Carolina State after just two successful years in DeKalb, before Rod Carey made the jump to Temple three years ago.
Meanwhile, after spending 2020 as the darling of the college football world, Coastal Carolina (10-2, 6-2 in Sun Belt) continued their remarkable growth in securing their second consecutive bowl berth, though this time they’ll be looking to earn their first postseason victory in school history. Indeed, the Chanticleers have come a LONG way of late, for this was a program that simply didn’t exist when their opponent last won a bowl game. Founded in 2017, CCU’s growth has been rapid to say the least, with their biggest leaps made under the direction of (Head Coach) Jamey Chadwell, who last year guided them to a stunning 11-1 finish which saw them end the campaign ranked twelfth in the final College Football Playoff Rankings. Returning nineteen of twenty-two starters, including over ten super-seniors who were granted an extra year of eligibility following the COVID-19 pandemic, Coastal Carolina figured to have staying power within the Sun Belt, particularly after they gave Chadwell a hefty raise in pay to ward off any potential suitors (for now). Though they came up short of bringing a second consecutive league title to Conway, South Carolina, they now have a golden opportunity to win their first bowl ever, with the irony that they’ll be attempting to do so at the same venue in which they suffered their lone defeat of 2020. Last December they met Liberty in a spirted 37-34 affair at the Cure Bowl, rallying back from an early 14-point deficit to engage in shootout that would need overtime to decide a victor. Unfortunately, Chadwell’s troops ran out of gas in the extra period, though nonetheless managed to amass 483 total yards, with Quarterback, Grayson McCall (73.0%, 2,558 YDS, 12.1 Y/A, 23 TD, 3 INT) completing 21-of-32 passes for 318 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, while rushing for another ninety-six yards and a score on fifteen carries. That kind of production has become the standard at Coastal Carolina, where their variation of the triple-option spread offense has proven to be a handful for their opposition; the Chanticleers have averaged a whopping 40.4 points per game (6th in FBS) on 492.3 total yards, including 261.8 yards on a healthy 10.7 yards per attempt, along with another 230.4 yards on the ground on 5.7 yards per carry. In his second season in Conway, McCall has been the perfect fit for this offense, completing an efficient 73.0% of his attempts for 2,558 yards on a staggering 12.1 yards per attempt, with twenty-three touchdowns in comparison to just three interceptions, while also rushing for another four scores and 247 yards. The Sophomore missed a pair of games in early November with a hurting his shoulder in a narrow 35-28 victory over Troy, with Chadwell fearing that his season could be over. Of course, he would return two weeks later, but in his absence the Chanticleers lost a 42-40 shootout with Georgia State, in which the offense, led by his backup, Bryce Carpenter (59.4%, 483 YDS, 7.0 Y/A, 4 TD, 1 INT), committed a pair of turnovers. With that said, they still had an opportunity to send the game to overtime, as Carpenter tossed a 17-yard touchdown only to see the two-point conversion fail. Like their opponent today, this unit is built on the success of the ground game, with three different Tailbacks rushing for at least 500 yards, led by (Senior) Shermari Jones (151 CAR, 992 YDS, 6.6 Y/A, 13 TD) with 992 yards and thirteen touchdowns. When we last saw these guys in a tough 27-21 victory at South Alabama, Jones carried the load with career-high 211 rushing yards and a touchdown on twenty-three carries, including a 75-yard touchdown run to put the visitors ahead after falling behind 10-0. Trailing 21-14 late in the fourth quarter, the Chanticleers managed to square the affair away at 21-21 with thirty-nine seconds left of the game clock, forcing overtime where they would eventually claim victory, as McCall ran twenty-five yards for the go-ahead score. Despite racking up 491 total yards and outrushing the Jaguars 315-5, it was a sloppy performance from Chadwell’s charges, who turned it over a season-high three times and were penalized on seven occasions for a loss of eighty-four yards. McCall was just 16-of-25 passing for 176 yards, a touchdown and an interception, but as he has all season, made the requisite plays to win in the end. That prolific rushing performance aside, this is a team that can certainly sling the football all over the gridiron too, with (Seniors) Jaivon Heiligh (59 REC, 1,034 YDS, 17.5 Y/R, 7 TD) and Isaiah Likely (52 REC, 816 YDS, 15.7 Y/R, 10 TD) combining for 111 catches for 1,850 yards and seventeen scores. At 6′-2″ and 6′-4″ respectively, these two playmakers have the size to win individual matchups with smaller defenders, while also possessing the athleticism to make plays after the catch with both averaging over 15.0 yards per reception. After recording ninety or more receiving yards in six of his first eight games, Heiligh has cooled off considerably, but still managed to make an impact in the win over South Alabama, getting the visiting side on the board with a 10-yard score from McCall late in the third quarter. On the flipside, if CCU can get a similar defensive performance to the one they received against the Jaguars then they should be well on their way towards winning their first bowl game. Chadwell’s defense relinquished a season-low minus-5 rushing yards, while registering three takeaways, marking only the sixth game in which they’ve forced a turnover. Old Dominion transfer, Lance Boykin (20 TKL, 3 INT, 4 PD) picked off (USA Quarterback) Jake Bentley twice, while (fifth-year Senior Linebacker) Silas Kelly (95 TKL, 8.0 TFL, 2.5 SK, 1 INT, 2 PD) added another along with the walk-off sack in overtime. The Chanticleers sacked Bentley on four occasions, with (Freshman Defensive Tackle) Josaiah Stewart (42 TKL, 16 TFL, 13.0 SK, 3 FF) accounting for three of them, finishing the season as the league leader in that particular category (13). On a unit that features ten returning starters, the undersized Tackle has been nothing short of disruptive, leading the team in tackles for loss (16) and forced fumbles (3) in addition to sacks. If Chadwell & Co manage to win today and secure a second consecutive 11-win campaign, don’t be surprised to see the 44-year-old’s name mentioned with the litany of coaching openings across the country, particularly with today’s game taking place in the early stages of the postseason cycle.