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December 19, 2006

Poinsettia Bowl: TCU vs. Northern Illinois

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Head-to-Head Breakdown

Northern Illinois tailback Garrett Wolfe began his sensational senior season by gaining 285 all-purpose yards against top-ranked Ohio State.

The NCAA rushing leader will end the year with an almost equally difficult assignment.

Wolfe can finish the season with 2,000 rushing yards if he gains at least 100 yards Tuesday in the Poinsettia Bowl against No. 25 TCU at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium (8 p.m., ESPN2).

Reaching the century mark against the nation's fourth-ranked run defense would represent one of the best overall performances of Wolfe's brilliant career.

TCU (10-2) has gone 19 consecutive games without allowing a 100-yard rusher since New Mexico's DonTrell Moore gained 129 yards against the Horned Frogs on Oct. 1, 2005.

Boston College, Florida and Utah are the nation's only other Division I-A teams that haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher this year.

"They have a very talented defense," Wolfe said. "I'm sure everyone across the country knows that. As long as we win the football game, then I've probably done my job."

Wolfe will have to do his job for Northern Illinois to have any chance of pulling off the upset. A knee injury has sidelined starting quarterback Phil Horvath and should put even more pressure on Wolfe to carry Northern Illinois' offense.

Then again, Wolfe already has proved he's capable of filling that role.

The senior standout has joined Georgia's Herschel Walker, Pittsburgh's Tony Dorsett and Miami (Ohio)'s Travis Prentice as the only Division I-A players in history to rush for at least 1,500 yards in three consecutive seasons.

He rushed for 171 yards against Ohio State this season. He gained 148 yards on just 17 carries against Michigan last year.

The 5-foot-7 dynamo now will try to end his outstanding college career with one more notable performance against a highly regarded opponent.

"We haven't played anyone that has a tailback like they do," TCU coach Gary Patterson said.

Poinsettia Bowl: No. 25 TCU vs. Northern Illinois
No. 25 TCU Horned Frogs
Conference: Mountain West
Record: 10-2, 6-2
Coach: Gary Patterson (53-20, sixth season)
Passing leader: Jeff Ballard (171-of-278, 2,136 yards, 12 TDs, five INTs)
Rushing leaders: Aaron Brown (140 carries, 749 yards, nine TDs), Lonta Hobbs (127 carries, 556 yards, six TDs), Jeff Ballard (99 carries, 404 yards, five TDs).
Receiving leaders: Quentily Harmon (46 catches, 697 yards, three TDs), Aaron Brown (33 catches, 447 yards, one TD), Donald Massey (25 catches, 324 yards, three TDs).
Defensive leaders: DE Tommy Blake (30 solos, 21 assists, 13 tackles for loss, five sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries), S Marvin White (53 solos, 26 assists, two tackles for loss, one sack, four interceptions, two forced fumbles), LB Jason Phillips (34 solos, 33 assists, five tackles for loss, one sack, one interception, one fumble recovery).
Northern Illinois Huskies
Conference: Mid-American
Record: 7-5, 5-3
Coach: Joe Novak (61-65, 11th season)
Passing leader: Phil Horvath (157-of-269, 1,932 yards, 11 TDs, nine INTs).
Rushing leader: Garrett Wolfe (289 carries, 1,900 yards, 18 TDs).
Receiving leaders: Britt Davis (57 catches, 731 yards, three TDs), Marcus Perez (30 catches, 406 yards, five TDs), Garrett Wolfe (26 catches, 247 yards, one TD), Brandon Davis (22 catches, 241 yards, two TDs), Jarret Carter (21 catches, 222 yards, one TD), Matt Simon (19 catches, 252 yards, one TD).
Defensive leaders: FS Dustin Utschig (58 solos, 49 assists, two tackles for loss, two forced fumbles), LB Tim McCarthy (36 solos, 68 assists, seven tackles for loss, one sack, two interceptions, one fumble recovery), DE Larry English (30 solos, 19 assists, 15 tackles for loss, 11 sacks, four forced fumbles), DT Craig Rusch (14 solos, 31 assists, 12 tackles for loss, five sacks, one fumble recovery), LB Keenan Blalark (29 solos, 63 assists, five tackles for loss, two sacks), DE Ken West (16 solos, 15 assists, seven tackles for loss, two sacks, three fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles).
TCU running game vs. Northern Illinois run defense: Although NCAA rushing leader Garrett Wolfe's attempts to run on TCU's exceptional defense will earn most of the pregame attention, this game could come down to how well the Horned Frogs run the ball on Northern Illinois. TCU has won all eight games in which it has rushed for at least 167 yards. The Frogs have averaged 211 rushing yards in each of their 10 wins, but they've rushed for just 111 yards per game in their two losses. A balanced rushing attack that includes Aaron Brown, Lonta Hobbs and quarterback Jeff Ballard has helped TCU average 223 rushing yards per contest during its seven-game winning streak. NIU has allowed just 2.7 yards per carry in its seven wins, but the Huskies have given up 4.2 yards per rush in their five losses.
Edge: TCU.
TCU passing game vs. Northern Illinois pass defense: Ballard completed 78 percent of his passes for 760 yards with seven touchdowns and no interceptions in his final three games of the regular season. The senior quarterback now closes his college career against a Northern Illinois team that ranks 104th in the nation in pass defense. Ballard should have a big night as long as his offensive line can contain Larry English and Craig Rusch, who have combined for 16 sacks and 27 tackles for loss.
Edge: TCU.
Northern Illinois running game vs. TCU run defense: Wolfe enters the Poinsettia Bowl needing 100 yards to reach the 2,000-yard mark for the season. He could have trouble reaching that plateau against TCU, which owns the nation's fourth-ranked run defense. TCU is one of four Division I-A teams in the nation that hasn't allowed any individual to rush for 100 yards this season. The last running back to gain 100 yards against TCU was New Mexico's DonTrell Moore on Oct. 1, 2005.
Edge: Even.
Northern Illinois passing game vs. TCU pass defense: A knee injury has sidelined Northern Illinois starting quarterback Phil Horvath for this game and will force sophomore Dan Nicholson into duty. Nicholson also replaced an injured Horvath at the end of last season, so he isn't exactly in an unfamiliar role. Nicholson owns a 3-1 career record as a starter and led the Huskies to a 27-0 victory over Eastern Michigan in the regular-season finale despite throwing three interceptions. Nicholson could have trouble finding time to throw against a TCU defense that has recorded 24 sacks during its seven-game winning streak.
Edge: TCU.
TCU coaches vs. Northern Illinois coaches: TCU's Gary Patterson has established himself as arguably the greatest head coach from a non-BCS program. Patterson has led the Frogs to four 10-win seasons in their last five years. TCU owns a 4-3 bowl record during Patterson's tenure. TCU had gone 41 years without a bowl victory before Patterson's arrival. Northern Illinois coach Joe Novak has engineered an equally dramatic turnaround. Northern Illinois has compiled seven consecutive winning seasons after earning just one victory in Novak's first 27 games at the school.
Edge: TCU.
TCU will win if: The Horned Frogs should breeze if they hold Wolfe to fewer than 100 rushing yards. Even if Wolfe reaches the century mark, TCU's ability to run and pass against Northern Illinois' vulnerable defense should allow the Frogs to win.
Northern Illinois will win if: The Huskies need Wolfe to have a big game that will allow them to control the clock and keep their defense off the field. A huge performance from Wolfe also would take the pressure off Nicholson.
Injury situation: Northern Illinois starting quarterback Phil Horvath has a knee injury that will prevent him from playing. Horvath joins cornerback Alvah Hansbro, tight end Jake Nordin, running back Montell Clanton and defensive tackle Alex Krutsch as Northern Illinois players with season-ending injuries.
Worth noting: This marks the first time TCU and Northern Illinois have faced each other. TCU has trailed for a total of 17 minutes, 8 seconds during its current seven-game winning streak. TCU has outscored teams 176-13 in the first half during this streak. First-team all-Mountain West Conference players for TCU included DE Tommy Blake, KR Brian Bonner, DE Chase Ortiz, LB Jason Phillips, OT Herbert Taylor and S Marvin White. First-team all-Mid-American Conference players for Northern Illinois included TB Garrett Wolfe, OT Doug Free and DE Larry English. At least a couple of players from the local NFL team should have interest in the Poinsettia Bowl. San Diego Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson is a former TCU star. Tomlinson's backup Michael Turner starred for Northern Illinois. This game features two of the nation's most underrated offensive tackles. TCU's Herb Taylor has made 48 consecutive starts, while Northern Illinois' Free is rated as the 68th overall NFL Draft prospect by Frank Coyle of draftinsiders.com. Don't be surprised if a blocked kick plays a major role in this game. TCU has blocked three punts this season, while Northern Illinois has blocked two punts and an extra-point attempt.
Line: TCU by 12.
Megargee's pick: TCU, 24-13.
Other Rivals.com Expert picks:
Olin Buchanan, national college football writer: TCU, 31-17.
Bobby Burton, editor-in-chief: TCU, 35-17.
Bill King, RivalsRadio host: TCU, 35-21.
Make your picks on Rivals.com Bowl Pick 'Em.

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