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What to watch for as the NIU football team takes on Coastal Carolina in the Cure Bowl

The NIU football team will look for its first bowl win since the 2011 season, while Coastal Carolina searches for its first at the FBS level as the teams meet Friday at the Cure Bowl in Orlando, Florida.

The Chanticleers (10-2) became an FBS program in 2017 and played in their first bowl game last year, also at the Cure Bowl. NIU (9-4) has lost six straight bowls, last appearing in the 2018 Boca Raton Bowl, losing 37-13 to Alabama-Birmingham.

Kickoff is set for 5 p.m. Friday on ESPN2.

Scouting the Chanticleers

They rank seventh in college football with 493.1 yards per game, while the Huskies are allowing 447.7 yards per game – 113th among FBS teams.

The weaponry starts with Sun Belt Player of the Year Grayson McCall, who has a 207.9 passer efficiency ranking to lead all of FBS – the all-time high at the end of a season is 203.1 held by Mac Jones of Alabama, set last year.

“I think it’s going to be a physical football game,” Coastal Carolina coach Jamey Chadwell said. “We hope we can have some advantage with speed, but we’re going to have to play well. They’re champions for a reason. They find ways to win.”

McCall’s 12.1 yards per attempt is also best in FBS.

His top targets have been Jaivon Heiligh as well as Isaiah Likely, both heading to post-season NFL scouting bowls. Heiligh has 1,034 yards on 59 catches with seven scores, while Likely has 52 catches for 816 yards and 10 scores.

The Chanticleers are also 17th in total defense, allowing 324.8 yards. But Chadwell was quick to point out the NIU run game and its domination of time of possession, ranked 10th in the country.

“They have had a tremendous season and a great turnaround there,” Chadwell said. “The thing that jumps out is they’ve dominated the ball. They’re one of the tops in the country. They’re going to possess it.”

Three things to watch

1. How does the NIU defense handle the Coastal offense?

The Huskies are coming off one of their best defensive performances, beating Kent State for the MAC title, 41-23. Barely a month earlier, the Huskies lost 52-47 to the Flashes.

The Chanticleers deploy an option offense, something the Huskies haven’t seen much of in the past.

“I’m honestly excited about it because in the MAC we don’t have that,” linebacker Nick Rattin said. “I think it’s going to be a good challenge for us. They’re a good team with great players and their quarterback does a great job of putting the offense through him. I was watching film today, and even went into the locker room and said this is going to be a very cool experience for us. We just don’t get to see that style of football.”

The NIU secondary is also coming off a high note, intercepting Kent State twice after making just one interception all year prior to the title game.

The Chanticleers get 261.8 yards per game in the air and a sixth-best in the nation 231.2 on the ground. The Huskies are fifth in rushing yards per game at 234.2.

But coach Thomas Hammock said for the Huskies, it all comes down to controlling the option.

“They’re going to get you in space and there’s going to be some one-on-one opportunities,” Hammock said. “We have to make those one-on-one plays. We have to have great eye discipline with all the different things they’ve got going on with their offense.”

2. Bowling for first time

For most of the NIU players – the second-youngest team in FBS – a bowl is a new experience for them.

“I know we’re the second-youngest team in college football, but they are pretty mature in terms of football and what they want to accomplish,” Hammock said. “I don’t think you win the type of games we’ve been able to win without a competitive maturity. … They understand we’re playing a good football team. Coastal allows you to stay focused. It’s not a team you can overlook.”

And while the Chanticleers also went bowling last year, it was under heavy COVID-19 restrictions and there wasn’t a lot of fanfare around the bowl.

This year, the teams are staying at a Universal Studios Resort and went to the theme park before the game.

“I’m glad they could appreciate that and appreciative of the bowl games for doing that this year,” Chadwell said. “They’re going to be able to experience that after never having experienced that before.”

Even though he’s a senior, NIU’s Clint Ratkovich transferred in from Western Illinois. While he has playoff experience at the FCS level, this is his first bowl game.

“Honestly some of the younger guys are helping me out a little bit because I’ve never been to a bowl game,” Ratkovich said. “It’s a little weird, we don’t have school right now – it’s kind of like a playoff feeling from FCS.”

3. Playing-time balance

NIU practiced a handful of days in DeKalb before heading to Orlando on Tuesday, and Hammock said the first two days were compete days, getting a look at younger players.

He said getting players into the game if they still have eligibility left is a factor the Huskies are considering.

NIU has four players already at the four-game limit to retain their redshirt status. But there are nine others who have played three games or less.

“We don’t want the game prep to get stale and old,” Hammock said. “We’ve had two excellent days. Guys are stepping up and competing and given themselves a chance to play. We still have guys with four-game availability left and we want to maximize that to the best of our ability.”

Pulse of the fans

Quick analysis

The Huskies are coming into Orlando as hot as the weather (down there, obviously). But they are also facing arguably the second-best team on their schedule and are doing it with an ever-growing list of injuries. Dillon Thomas was in a boot in practice last week, and Hammock said “we’ll see” to his availability – though he is on the depth chart. They are also likely to be without Jordan Hansen, whose arm was still in a sling this week after missing the MAC title game. It might be too much for them to overcome this time around when you factor in the players already missing like Tyrice Richie, Devin Lafayette and Harrison Waylee, to name a few.


Coastal Carolina 45, NIU 38

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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