Boca Raton Bowl: UAB vs. Northern Illinois Pick
UAB Blazers (10-3 SU, 9-4 ATS) vs. Northern Illinois Huskies (8-5 SU, 7-6 ATS)
Boca Raton Bowl
Date and Time: Tuesday, December 18, 2018 at 7PM EST
Where: FAU Football Stadium, Boca Raton, Florida
Point Spread: UAB -2.5/NIU 2.5
Over/Under Total: 43.5
The UAB Blazers take on the Northern Illinois Huskies on December 18 at FAU Football Stadium in the Boca Raton Bowl. NIU had some ups and downs, but still managed to win their last game to win the MAC title and they look to close out the season strong. Standing in their way is the Conference USA champion UAB Blazers, winners of ten games this season and also looking for a nice bowl triumph to cap off a big season. In this battle, I see the Huskies getting the cover in Boca. Let’s break this one down.
Each Team Showed Heart Down the Stretch
Neither team had an easy route to this spot. For UAB, an 8 game winning streak led to them being at the top of their division. But toward the end of the season, they faced some issues, not so much because they lost to Texas A&M, but a 27-3 loss to Middle Tennessee didn’t bode well for their title game, where they faced the same opponent on the same field. This time, in a back-and-forth battle, the Blazers emerged victorious, 27-25, winning the conference title. That’s not too bad for a team that saw their football program get scratched a few years ago.
Northern Illinois saw some similar adversity. After a 1-3 start, the Huskies started hitting their stride as they got into conference play and they began taking over the MAC. At the end of the season, however, they started seeing things go sideways. Losses to conference teams Miami-Ohio and Western Michigan led them into a title game against 10-2 Buffalo. The bad fortune continued, with Buffalo holding a 29-10 lead until deep in the third quarter. Suddenly, QB Marcus Childers was making plays all over the field, with DJ Brown and Spencer Tears each catching two TD throws, as the Huskies emerged unlikely 30-29 winners. So let’s remember what these teams have gone through in order to arrive at this spot. At the end of the day, the Boca Raton Bowl isn’t going to get the average fan’s blood pumping, but these are two battle-tested conference champions who overcame a lot to be here.
Differering Levels of Competition
On one hand, you have a 10-win Alabama-Birmingham team against an 8-win Northern Illinois squad, and it could lead to some different conclusions. And while one could say UAB is better on some levels. The Conference USA has a lot of soft touches. That goes for the MAC, as well, but with wins over Savannah, Coastal Carolina, Tulane, Charlotte, Rice, UTSA, UTEP, and Southern Miss, that’s a lot of rift-raft on UAB’s schedule. I’d say a good takeaway is to look at this as a reasonably evenly-matched game.
It was good to see the NIU offense show what they could do, with a big late-explosion against Buffalo in their championship win. Before the end of the night, Marcus Childers had a season-high 300 yards, and that came against a highly-ranked Buffalo pass-defense. NIU is facing a similar defense this week, but one that is good both against the run and the pass. In averaging just 17.3 points per game this season, UAB has been stout. They can also make plays and have gotten timely turnovers this season in a handful of games. They rush the passer well, ranked third nationally in sacks, led by aggressive pursuers in Jamell Garcia-Williams and Tre’ Crawford, who have combined for 18 sacks. Other than the spurt late against Buffalo, we’ve seen an NIU offense not always fire. Tre Harbison and Marcus Jones, a pair of running backs who were on a roll, have been quiet the last few weeks and this offense will need a more complete performance this week to come out ahead in this spot.
UAB is led at quarterback by Tyler Johnston, III., who came in and did about as well as his predecessor. They don’t throw a ton, which means they won’t take advantage of Northern Illinois’ sketchy pass-defense. They rely a lot on the run, an area where the NIU defense has thrived. We’ll see if their big front can contain Spencer Brown, one of the conference’s top backs, who had 16 touchdowns this season. But Northern Illinois is tough up-front, leading the entire country in sacks. Defensive end Sutton Smith is tied for the lead in the country with 15 sacks. Next to him is run-stopper Jack Heflin, a great DT who also gets after QBs. Josh Corcoran also has ten sacks. They have as many turnovers as the UAB defense and look to be a tough matchup against the ground game-heavy Blazers.
Looking for Other Variables
Regionally, this is more in UAB’s wheelhouse, with the home stadium being of a team in their conference. This is the fourth straight road game for UAB and the third for NIU. Both sides, however, performed better ATS on the road this season. I think on offense, the Huskies have a little more firepower or at least the potential for it. NIU may not have run the ball better than UAB this season, but they do have more offensive threats. There’s a higher ceiling there for the NIU offense.
Defensively, NIU matches up very well with UAB, as the Blazers don’t tend to stretch the field, taking the more-dicey part of the Huskies’ defense more out of the equation. I’m not sure the UAB offensive-line has faced a pass-rushing team of this caliber, with the threats coming from a variety of different sources. The NIU defense has done some impressive things this season, holding Utah to 17 points and BYU to 6 points. And against Buffalo in the title game, after being leaky early, they tightened up with some clutch play late and got the job done.
Take the Points on the Huskies
Not one to argue with those who set these lines, getting points on the Huskies seems to be a bonus. It’s not a lot of points, but who knows? It could come in handy. There are things to like on both sides. UAB has been the steadier football force. I just think NIU is more-capable of finding another gear. In the end, I see some big plays on both sides of the ball helping the Huskies pull away late for the big cover in the Boca Raton Bowl.
Loot’s Pick to Cover the Point Spread: I’m betting on the Northern Illinois Huskies plus 2.5 points. Editor’s Note: Guys, if you are looking to bet online then our best in its class sportsbooks guide is a must read. Check it out!