2006 Poinsettia Bowl Preview - NIU vs. TCU

Posted Dec 7, 2006

2006 San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl - Northern Illinois vs. TCU

TCU (10-2) vs. Northern Illinois (7-5)

Dec. 19, 8 p.m. ESPN2

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Poinsettia Bowl Player Profile: TCU QB Jeff Ballard, history and more

After almost three weeks off, the college football world gears it up again with the first bowl game of the season, and it might not be that bad if Northern Illinois plays like it did over the final two games of the season, and if TCU cools off a little bit.

The Horned Frogs had one of the nation's hottest teams over the second half of the season winning seven straight including dominant performances over San Diego State, Colorado State and Air Force by a combined score of 132 to 28. With the nation's best defense's and a red-hot Jeff Ballard at quarterback, everything was clicking in November.

National Rankings
TCU No. Illinois
Total Offense
17th  404.50 ypg 24th  388,5 ypg
Total Defense
4th  249.50 ypg 80th  357.08 ypg
Scoring Offense
33rd  28.58 ppg 42nd  27 ppg
Scoring Defense
5th  12.75 ppg 42nd  19.83 ppg
Run Offense
9th  194.33 ypg 17th  180.17 ypg
Run Defense
4th  67.58 ypg 34th  115.58 ypg
Pass Offense
49th  210.17 ypg 50th  208.33 ypg
Pass Defense
34th  189.92 ypg 104th  241.50 ypg
Turnover Margin
27th 0.50 43rd  0.25
at Baylor W 17-7
UC Davis W 46-13
Texas Tech W 12-3
L 31-17
at Utah L 20-7
at Army W 31-17
W 26-3
at UNLV W 25-10
at N Mexico W 27-21
San Diego St W 52-0
at Col St W 45-14
Air Force
W 38-14
Northern Illinois
at Ohio St L 35-12
Ohio L 35-23
Buffalo W 31-13
Indiana St W 48-14
at Ball St W 40-28
at Miami U. W 28-25
at W Mich
L 16-14
Temple W 45-21
at Iowa L 24-14
Toledo L 17-13
C Mich
W 31-10
at E Mich W 27-0
Position Ratings
relative to each other
TCU 5 highest
1 lowest
4.5 Quarterbacks 3
4.5 RBs 5
3 Receivers 3
4 O Line 3.5
4 D Line 3.5
4.5 Linebackers 3
4 Secondary 2
4 Spec Teams 4
4.5 Coaching 4

Last year at this time, TCU was even hotter winning ten straight after an early-season loss to SMU, and has now won 20 of its last 22 games. Early-season losses to BYU in Utah killed any chances to win the Mountain West title, but with a win over the Huskies, this will be the programs third 11-win season in four years.

Northern Illinois was one of the bigger disappointments to start the season with a what seemed at the time to be a bad lost Ohio, who ended up playing for the MAC championship. However, outside of 17-13 loss to Toledo in early November, NIU beat the teams it was supposed to on the way to its second bowl game in three years and the third in the program's history.

One of the hot programs early on because of the rushing of senior back Garrett Wolfe, the national spotlight was on DeKalb before Western Michigan shut down the diminutive star beginning a slide of four straight average games to kill all the sleeper-Heisman talk. Even so, Wolfe finished the year as the nation's leading rusher with 1,900 yards and on the doorstep of a 2,000-yard season if he can somehow get by the nation's fourth best run defense.

The Horned Frogs played a stunningly lifeless home game against BYU in late September and played poorly with three turnovers against Utah the week after. While their seven-game winning streak looks impressive on paper, only one win came over bowl-bound team, a mediocre 6-6 New Mexico squad.  Even so, is shown by an impressive 12-3 win over Texas Tech earlier in the year, this team does have the talent to play with the better teams in America.  While it would be nice to see what this team could do against a top BCS conference caliber team, Northern Illinois will have to do.

The MAC could use this win over the Mountain West. Always striving for national respect, NIU and its league can make some big noise in, arguably, the most important game in the school's history.  Since this is the first bowl game of the season, the national spotlight will be on Joe Novak and his program. Wolfe can make a big statement for the NFL scouts, NIU can show it can beat a top 25-caliber team, and this could set the tone for 2007 when the Huskies should be a favorite to win the MAC title.

Let's just hope this isn't a blowout. No one wants one of the most wonderful times of the sports season to begin with a thud.

Players to watch: TCU senior QB Jeff Ballard was the nation's best quarterback over the last three games of the season completing 58 of 74 passes (78%) for 760 yards and seven touchdowns with no interceptions. In fact, he is imported interception in his last five games. However, he wasn't always hot over the recent TCU winning streak completing just six of 16 passes for 25 yards in a 27-21 win over New Mexico. It's not quite right to call him streaky, but he will occasionally fall into a rut. That's when the defense has to help out the cause.

TCU DE Tommy Blake is one of the premier pass rushers in the Mountain West and should wreak havoc on the Northern Illinois backfield. While he wasn't quite the sack artist he was in 2005, he was still a disruptive force all season long forcing teams to double-team him and pay full attention at all times. That helped free things up for Chase Ortiz, who's also quick playmaker in the backfield.

To have a chance, the Northern Illinois offensive line has to dominate from the start. While it had a decent year, it was hardly the rock-solid front five of years past. Even so, OT Doug Free had a typical all-star season as he stayed in the hunt for first round NFL draft pick consideration. A freak of nature at 6-7 and over 300 pounds with tight end athleticism, he'll be a multimillionaire next year at this time.

Of course, all eyes will be on Garrett Wolfe. The senior got his groove back over the final  two games of the season rushing for 203 yards against Central Michigan 164 against Eastern Michigan. For the Huskies to win, or at least have a shot, Wolfe has to rush for well over 100 yards and score at least twice. If he has the holes to run through, he'll crank out five, seven, ten yards a crack, but if the passing game isn't working and the TCU linebackers are able to cheat up, he'll see a repeat of the October/early November four-game stretch when he ran for a total of 190 yards. That's why ...

TCU will win if... it's able to force Northern Illinois to win through the air. That's easier said than done if the Huskie offensive line gets into a lather early and Wolfe starts to roll, but the Horned Frogs will likely sell out to stop Wolfe and force NIU QB Dan Nicholson to move the offense. NIU starting quarterback Phil Horvath went down for the year with a knee injury against Central Michigan, and while Nicholson, who was one of the surprises of 2005 when he filled in for an injured Horvath, he struggled a bit against Eastern Michigan's porous secondary throwing three interceptions along with two touchdown passes. The TCU secondary was only lit up by BYU's John Beck this season holding Texas Tech to 204 passing yards. NIU can't win if the ground game doesn't work.

Northern Illinois will win if... it takes advantage of every mistake and every turnover. The Horned Frogs are good for at least one fumble having put on the ground 13 times over the final nine games of the season. The Huskies don't have the manpower or the overall talent to run and play with TCU is all things are even, so they must be nearly perfect, they have to control the tempo and the time of possession, and the pass defense has to play out of its skull after getting systematically torched all season long.

What will happen: This is not a good match for Northern Illinois. The corners are way too soft and don't take advantage of the pressure created by the defensive front. Decent quarterbacks have been able to dink and dunk the Huskies to death, and Ballard will be no different. It's the 101st defense in the nation in pass efficiency defense against one of the nation's most efficient passers over the last several weeks. The layoff isn't long enough for Ballard to get rusty.

Line: TCU -13 ... CFN Prediction:
TCU 38 ... Northern Illinois 14

Poinsettia Bowl Player Profile: TCU QB Jeff Ballard, history and more