UAB boasts ferocious defense, heavy pass rushers similar to Huskies
For the second time, Northern Illinois will play in the Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl, where the Huskies will face the resurgent University of Alabama-Birmingham Blazers.
Rod Carey enters bowl season with an 0-5 record in bowl games as head coach – the Jan. 1, 2013, Orange Bowl game, was as an interim head coach. A win would mean NIU’s ninth of the season, which would mark NIU’s highest win total since 2014.
“In the past, we have not been successful in bowl games. And that’s the fact of it,” coach Rod Carey said. “You can’t change that. But that’s not about me. It’s not about past records. It’s about this group of guys having the opportunity which we feel great about to play a 14th game and compete together.”
[Photos by Dave Reginek for Shaw Media]
UAB (10-3) returns to its second consecutive bowl after having its program reinstated six months after its December 2014 disbanding and just completed a conference title-winning season as it defeated Middle Tennessee, 27-25, in the Conference USA Championship Game.
“We clinched the championship a few weeks before against Southern Miss, and without making any excuses, we got some guys beat up in the last two conference games. Then we went and played a tough battle against Texas A&M, and we had about six offensive starters out,” UAB coach Bill Clark said. “But Middle Tennessee played us very, very well to get into the conference championship and just outplayed us. I think our guys really had to make a decision on how did we want to finish, and we had a goal all year to be conference champs.”
The game will be only of only three bowl games featuring conference champions, the others being Alabama vs. Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl and Washington vs. Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.
“We didn’t do anything team-wise, but we have our team app that we text back and forth, and they were going crazy on the team app. I think they’re pretty darn excited,” Carey said.
The Huskies appeared in the first Boca Raton Bowl against Marshall in 2014, losing, 52-23.
NIU (8-5) is appearing in its 13th bowl game and 10th in the past 11 seasons. Twelve of those have come since 2004. Entering this season, the Huskies’ nine bowl game appearances in the past 10 seasons made them one of only three programs (Boise State and Navy), from a Group of Five conference to accomplish that feat. The five leagues are Conference USA, Sun Belt Conference, Mountain West Conference, Western Athletic Conference and Mid-American Conference.
The Huskies will enter with a 4-8 record as a program in bowl games. The Blazers match strengths with the Huskies in a number of ways, owning several defensive statistical markers that rank near the top of the nation.
UAB is eighth in the Football Bowl Subdivision in yards allowed a game (287.2), fourth in team sacks (41), second in third-down conversion percentage defense (.255) and fifth in team tackles for loss a game (8.1). By comparison, NIU is 31st, first, 59th, and sixth in those categories, respectively. NIU surrenders 21.5 points a game compared to UAB's 16.7.
“Anytime you get two good defenses, that’s going to be a big deal,” Clark said. “I’ve heard nothing but great things about their defense, so we’ll have to rise to the occasion.”
Last winter, NIU lost, 36-14, to Duke at the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit. Ohio defeated UAB in the 2017 Bahamas Bowl, 41-6.
[Dave Reginek for Shaw Media]
“I watched a little bit of that Buffalo game and not even knowing we might even play," Clark said. "So impressed with them. We know about the MAC … what kind of football they play. We played some MAC teams. We’re going to have to buckle up to do our part.”
Last year, Carey appeared far from excited about Detroit’s Quick Lane Bowl as the Huskies’ destination when he stated at the time “I don’t know that we’re really fired up about Detroit.”
This time, those around the Huskies have expressed excitement about the coming trip.
“I’m ecstatic about it. I’m thankful to [athletic director Sean Frazier] and everyone else who had a hand in getting us down there and playing a quality candidate in UAB,” Carey said.