The Mountain West’s bowl-selection procedure operates somewhat like a dating service, with the league playing matchmaker.
The Poinsettia Bowl requested Boise State to fill its agreement with the Mountain West.
Boise State requested to play in the San Diego bowl game Dec. 23.
And the Mountain West obliged, sending the Broncos (8-4) to the Poinsettia to face Mid-American Conference runner-up Northern Illinois (8-5).
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“San Diego just seemed for us the appropriate choice this year,” Boise State Athletic Director Curt Apsey said Sunday, “and we’re just fortunate that we had a chance to say, ‘Yes.’ ”
Boise State lost to TCU in the 2008 Poinsettia Bowl, the only previous appearance by the Broncos. The bowl began this year with agreements with the Mountain West and Army.
When Army didn’t get bowl-eligible, the MAC took that spot. The Poinsettia could have been pushed toward the back of the MAC line since it isn’t a primary partner but landing Boise State changed that.
The bowl sent a representative to the Boise State-San Jose State game Nov. 27 to make sure the Broncos — and even the public — knew its intentions.
That gave Poinsettia Bowl Executive Director Mark Neville nine days to work toward his goal of inviting one of the MAC’s big three: Bowling Green, which won the conference title and was selected by the GoDaddy Bowl; Toledo, which spent time in the Top 25 and will face Temple in the Boca Raton Bowl; or Northern Illinois, the only Group of Five team with more wins since 2010 than Boise State.
“It certainly helped that it looked like we were headed toward Boise State,” Neville said. “We were able to get a better team out of the Mid-American Conference.”
Northern Illinois is a bit of a mystery entering the bowl season. The Huskies have played six games decided by eight points or fewer, including losses to Ohio State (20-13) and Boston College (17-14) and a stunning upset of then-undefeated Toledo (32-27).
Their season took a weird turn in that Toledo game when starting quarterback Drew Hare was injured and lost for the season. Backup Ryan Graham, a redshirt freshman, led the comeback win against the Rockets and two more victories. But he was injured in the Nov. 24 loss to Ohio.
True freshman walk-on Tommy Fiedler started the MAC championship game, a lopsided loss to Bowling Green.
But Graham might return for the bowl game, which could re-invigorate a usually potent offense. The Huskies rank 45th in the nation in total offense (426.6 yards per game) and tied for 42nd in scoring (33 points per game).
“What I am really looking forward to is the opportunity for our team to take on Boise State, one of the premier programs in the nation this decade and a model program to emulate based on their body of work,” Northern Illinois Athletic Director Sean Frazier said. “We really couldn’t ask for a better matchup.”
The Huskies have played in the MAC championship game six straight years and are making their MAC-record eighth straight bowl trip. They are 0-2 in the Poinsettia Bowl with losses to TCU in 2006 and Utah State in 2013. They won the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl against Fresno State in 2010.
Northern Illinois is 65-18 (78.3 winning percentage) since the beginning of the 2010 season. Boise State is 63-15 (80.8 winning percentage).
Boise State coach Bryan Harsin will speak to the media Monday about the bowl invitation. Apsey liked the matchup, which didn’t become clear to him until Sunday.
“The destination, I don’t think was a big mystery to everybody,” he said. “It was more so about who we were going to be able to play.”
The only other bowl in the conversation for the Broncos was the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. That game would have received stronger consideration if the Broncos had lost to San Jose State.
“I don’t think there’d be anything wrong with us playing in the Idaho Potato Bowl,” Apsey said.