It’s been an unbelievable last two seasons for Bill Clark and the UAB Blazers. Forces beyond the football program’s control conspired to shutter the program after the 2014 season, but a public outcry resurrected the Blazers from the ashes. Clark just led the Blazers to their best record ever, and they also claimed a conference championship for the first time in the school’s history. In a season of firsts, it only seems fitting that they would cap things off with the first bowl win in school history. They are short favorites per the college football betting odds in their game against the Northern Illinois Huskies.
Northern Illinois Huskies vs. UAB Blazers Boca Raton Bowl Betting Odds: UAB -2.5, O/U 43.5 Location: FAU Stadium, Boca Raton, Florida Date and Time: Tuesday, December 18, 2018, 7 p.m. ET Boca Raton Bowl TV Coverage: ESPN
UAB aren’t the only conference champions in this game as Northern Illinois claimed the MAC Championship last weekend. The Huskies won their first six conference games to win the MAC West title, before falling to Miami of Ohio and Western Michigan at the end of the regular season. Northern Illinois was a short underdog ahead of the MAC title game, and things looked bleak after the Huskies trailed by 19 points late in the third. Marcus Childers threw three touchdown passes in the final 16 minutes of action though in a thrilling comeback win.
Things started ominously for UAB this season after a 23-point loss to Coastal Carolina. However, UAB shook off that defeat to win eight straight games and claimed the Conference USA West title after a win over Southern Miss. The Blazers lost their last regular season game on the road to Middle Tennessee State, but they got their revenge the very next week when they nipped MTSU 27-25 for the CUSA title.
Injuries and Absences
Northern Illinois lost starting cornerback Albert Smalls for the season in late October, but the Huskies have remained largely healthy this season. Guard Christopher Perez is questionable due to an ankle injury and he is considered questionable.
Starting quarterback AJ Erdely is questionable to play for UAB as he is dealing with a shoulder injury. Erdely did not play in the conference title game, and in his stead Tyler Johnston led the team to a victory. Second-team all-conference offensive lineman Rishard Cook may miss the game too with an illness that kept him out for the last two games.
It’s pretty interesting that neither Clark or NIU head coach Rod Carey have been snatched up by a bigger school. Carey has been one of the top coaches in the MAC since Dave Doeren left to coach at NC State. Carey has led the Huskies to a bowl game in five of his six seasons in DeKalb, and he is 38-10 in MAC play. The one knock against him is his inability to win a bowl game. He is 0-5 in bowl games, and only one of those was close, a 21-14 loss to Utah State in the 2013 Poinsettia Bowl. Northern Illinois has lost by 21, 29, 48, and 22 points in its other four bowl games.
What Clark has done is unprecedented. He coached UAB for just one year before the program was terminated, but he stuck around and led its rebirth once the school decided to revive the team. Expectations were low in his first season, yet Clark shocked everyone by leading the Blazers to an 8-5 record, and he won even more this year. One of the few disappointments in the last two years was UAB’s 41-6 loss to Ohio in last season’s Bahamas Bowl, and he will be out to avenge that.
Matchup to Watch
These were two of the best Group of Five defenses in the nation, and both coaches are going to lean heavily on those units. Northern Illinois had the 15th ranked defense in the nation according to S&P+, and the Huskies didn’t have to score much in order to win. UAB wasn’t too far behind them with the 27th best defense, but the Blazers were much better on offense. The Blazers were 89th in total offense per S&P+, while the Huskies were ranked 115th.
Boca Raton Bowl Pick
The play of Marcus Childers will be pivotal in this game. Northern Illinois’ sophomore quarterback struggled for most of the season, but the Huskies don’t have many weapons at the skill positions so he was asked to do it all. He had nearly a third of the team’s carries, yet he wasn’t that great through the air and he averaged a paltry 5.4 yards per throw. Childers came up big when it mattered most though, throwing for 300 yards and four touchdowns against Buffalo.
Unfortunately, for the Huskies I don’t think we’ll see that Childers again. UAB has good defensive backs, and the Blazers will likely roll guys into the box to stop the run. That will stall out the Huskies’ ground game and UAB will do enough on offense to get the win and the cover.