Arkansas State Red Wolves (10-2 SU, 10-2 ATS) vs. Northern Illinois Huskies (10-3 SU, 5-8 ATS), 9:00 p.m. EST, GoDaddy.com Bowl, Sunday, January 8, 2012, Ladd Pebbles Stadium, Mobile, Ala., TV: ESPN
by Badger, College Football Handicapper, Predictem.com
Point Spread: Ark. St. -1.5/NIU +1.5
Over/Under Total: 63
Two conference champions will put two of the countrys longest winning streaks on the line when the Arkansas State Red Wolves and the Northern Illinois Huskies meet in the GoDaddy.com Bowl in Ladd Pebbles Stadium in Mobile, Alabama, on Sunday, January 8th.
The Red Wolves, who ran the table and won the Sun Belt Conference title, enter Ladd Pebbles Stadium riding a nine-game winning streak that included two 45-point outbursts to close it out over Middle Tennessee State (45-19) and Troy (45-14) in the season finale.
But even Arkansas St. isnt immune to the craziness that has consumed college football these days, as Red Wolves head coach Hugh Freeze has cashed in on the championship season by taking the vacant job at Mississippi, leaving running backs coach David Gunn to coach the Wolves in the bowl game. Arkansas State went out and hired a great replacement in Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, fresh off of the Tigers 43-point performance over Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, so Sundays bowl game for the Red Wolves will serve as the final game in many respects mentally and literally.
The Northern Illinois Huskies enter the GoDaddy.com Bowl fresh off their victory in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) Championship game, a last-second come-from-behind nail-biter, 23-20. The title was the Huskies first since the 1983 season, in the first season under head coach Dave Doeren, and the win also capped an eight-game winning streak the Huskies went on in order to capture the crown.
Now the Huskies will try and send their senior-laden team off with an 11-win season, as one of the most successful classes ever at Northern Illinois, in a bowl game that will serve as the warm-up game to the BCS Championship just one night later.
The oddsmakers in Las Vegas and offshore are either not drawing much interest in this game at the betting window, or they were spot on with the point spread when they opened the game with Arkansas State as slim 1-point favorites. The number has held, or has moved up the hook to minus -1.5 at a few sportsbooks.
The over/under total opened at 62 and is up to 63, or 63.5 at a few offshore sportsbooks that want to take the result of a push away from the bettor.
In a bowl season that has seen three totals closed in the 70s, and 10 others close in the 60s, the Red Wolves-Huskies matchup with a likely close at 63 will make it 11 games in whats expected to be another offensive showcase.
The Red Wolves-Huskies matchup will also be a great showcase of conference player of the year quarterbacks, with senior Chandler Harnish taking his last snaps for Northern Illinois against Arkansas State junior Ryan Aplin.
Harnish is the Northern Illinois offense. Harnish runs the Huskies spread-option pistol offense with the precision you would expect from a senior, leading the team with 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground as well as 2,900 yards passing with a 26-5 TD-to-INT ratio.
Harnish does a great job distributing the ball to his playmakers, like running back Jasmin Hopkins (939 yards, 15 TD) on the option and receivers Nathan Palmer (683 yards, 7 TD), Martel Moore (528, 6), Perez Ashford and Willie Clark in the passing game. With the 10th-ranked offense in the NCAA (482 ypg), and 13th in scoring (38.3 ppg), the Huskies offense is a strong unit capable of scoring quickly and in bunches.
But the Red Wolves offense is eerily similar with Aplin at the helm. Aplin also led his team in rushing (605 yards, 9 TD), as well as passing (3,200 yards, 18-13 TD-to-INT), and the offense was strong with 33.5 points per game scoring (26th) and over 450 yards a game with the ball.
But one could argue that Aplin doesnt have as much talent surrounding him. Receiver Dwayne Frampton (1,125 yards, 6 TD) is the Red Wolves biggest play-maker after Aplin, and Taylor Stockemer is a great stretch-the-field deep threat (15.4 ypc, 6 TD), but the running game is by committee under Gunn, the now interim in his last game at the school.
Both offenses will likely be successful on offense because neither defense in this game is shutdown-like without the ball.
Arkansas States defense will provide a solid challenge, since their strength is against the run (allow 107.3 ypg), but both offenses are the type that are hard to copy on scout team at full speed. The Red Wolves might have a hard time stopping all of the Huskies athletes on the perimeter too, since their pass defense is suspect at times and was gauged in both of their losses this season (allowed 270 yards to Illinois, 292 yards to Virginia Tech).
Northern Illinois has the type of defense that made the MAC Conference so exciting this season, one that gives up easy yards (418 ypg 89th) and easy scores (31.1 ppg) quickly and often. Its really surprising considering that Doeren was a defensive coordinator in his earlier gig at Wisconsin, and giving up 45 points to Kansas is totally embarrassing. In his defense, the Huskies have been weakened by injury in the front seven, and they played their best half of defense all year long in the MAC title game against Ohio, allowing no second-half scores to help the offense erase a 20-point halftime deficit.
There is some history between these schools to draw from too, with the schools playing seven straight years from 1990 to 1996. The Red Wolves would probably like to forget it though, since Northern Illinois has won six of the seven games and is also 4-2-1 ATS at the window too.
But considering Arkansas State was the underdog in all seven matches, the GoDaddy Bowl will be the first time they play as the hunted and not the hunter.
Arkansas State has played well as the favorite (6-1 ATS in L7) and in non-conference matchups (4-1 ATS in L5), but those are pretty small samples to call them solid betting trends.
Northern Illinois has had a hard time away from DeKalb and the MAC in general, going 1-8 ATS in their last nine neutral-site games and 0-5 ATS as the underdog in neutral venues too.
Ironically, its the under that looks like a solid trend play. The under is 8-2 when the Red Wolves play on field turf, and 12-3-1 in their last 16 non-conference games. The under is also 7-1 in Northern Illinois last eight neutral-site games.
Badgers Pick to Cover the Point Spread: This game is really going to come down to your perception of which conference was better this season, the Sun Belt or the MAC, because these teams are nearly identical in approach. In the end though I think the better defense wins, so thats likely Arkansas State, but both teams will score points in a game that I think goes over before the start of the fourth quarter. Im taking Arkansas State minus the 1.5-points and the OVER.
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