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Joel Boyd | Chicago Tribune | December 19, 2018

UAB-Northern Illinois: 5 things to watch for in the Boca Raton Bowl

Only three of the 39 FBS bowl games this postseason feature two conference champions squaring off.

One is the Orange Bowl, which has SEC champ Alabama taking on Big 12 champ Oklahoma in a national semifinal. Another is the Rose Bowl, which got its traditional pairing of the Big Ten and Pac-12 champs when Ohio State was left out of the College Football Playoff and sent to face Washington instead.

The third takes place Tuesday night in South Florida when Mid-American champion Northern Illinois (8-5) meets Conference USA champ UAB (10-3) in the Boca Raton Bowl at FAU Stadium (6 p.m., ESPN).

RELATED: 2018-19 college football bowl schedule

Here are five things to watch for and other noteworthy items:

1. If you like teams that get after the quarterback, this is the bowl game for you.

NIU leads the nation with 50 sacks, and UAB is tied for third with 43. The Huskies' defensive end tandem of Sutton Smith (15 sacks, tied for the FBS lead) and Josh Corcoran (10) has six more combined sacks than the country's next-best duo, Kentucky's Josh Allen (14) and Jamar Watson (five). Linebackers Jamell Garcia-Williams (9 1/2 sacks) and Tre' Crawford (eight) lead the Blazers pass rush.

2. The NIU defense isn't just about rushing the passer.

Led by linebackers Antonio Jones-Davis (119 tackles) and Kyle Pugh (99), the Huskies have held seven of their 13 opponents below 100 rushing yards and are one of only four FBS teams not to allow a 100-yard rusher all season (Clemson, Southern Miss and Marshall are the others). NIU is third in the nation with 2.69 yards allowed per carry and 14th with 109.7 rushing yards allowed per game. Power Five opponents Iowa and Florida State were the only teams to score 30 or more points against the Huskies.

3. On the other side of the ball, NIU has struggled to find a consistent rhythm.

The Huskies have scored in single digits four times, including a 7-6 victory at BYU, and rank in the nation's bottom 15 in scoring (20.7 points per game, 119th) and total offense (325 yards per game, 122nd). On the plus side, redshirt sophomore quarterback Marcus Childers is coming off a career game in NIU's 30-29 comeback win over Buffalo in the MAC title game. Childers was 21 of 33 for a career-best 300 yards and four touchdowns, which tied a career high.

MORE: Tracking every conferences' performance in 2018-19 bowl games

4. That said, the NIU offense goes as the running game goes.

The Huskies have won 10 of their last 11 games when rushing for 200 yards or more, including five of six this year (a 13-7 loss to Miami of Ohio was the exception). Redshirt sophomore Tre Harbison needs only 15 rushing yards Tuesday to reach 1,000 for the season.

5. The Huskies' opponent is one of the nation's best stories.

UAB terminated its football program after the 2014 season, only to announce six months later, after strong public backlash and fundraising efforts, that it would reinstate the program with a return to competition in 2017. Coach Bill Clark stuck around through the two-year hiatus, and the Blazers went 8-5 in their return with an appearance in the Bahamas Bowl. After winning 10 games and a conference title this year, Clark received the Eddie Robinson National Coach of the Year award.

Odds and ends: NIU left tackle Max Scharping will make his 53rd start Tuesday. A three-time first-team All-MAC selection, Scharping also was named a first-team Academic All-American by the College Sports Information Directors of America and was a finalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy — known as the "Academic Heisman" — that Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins won.

- The Huskies are in a bowl game for the 10th time in 11 seasons, but they're looking to end a five-game losing streak in bowls. Their last win came against Arkansas State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl after the 2011 season. That was also the last time the MAC champion won its bowl game.

- NIU played eight bowl teams this season and nine bowl-eligible teams. Not on that list was Florida State (5-7).

- NIU and UAB never have played in football, but the Huskies have played three other teams from Alabama: Auburn, Troy and Alabama — which NIU defeated 19-16 in 2003 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Yes, that was before coach Nick Saban arrived.

This article is written by Joel Boyd from Chicago Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.