SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) -- Northern Illinois and Troy will meet in
a rain-soaked, mostly empty stadium thousands of miles from home in
a game stretching well past most of their players' bedtimes.
And since that's what it takes to end their schools' bowl
droughts, coaches Joe Novak and Larry Blakeney are thrilled to be
at the Silicon Valley Football Classic.
"There's honestly no place else we'd rather play right now,"
Novak said. "It's a thrill to be in San Jose."
It's probably the season's most unlikely bowl matchup: Novak's
Northern Illinois club (8-3), which hasn't been to the postseason
in 21 years despite going 10-2 last season, will face Blakeney's
up-and-coming Trojans (7-4), who are making their first Division
I-A bowl appearance Thursday night.
"Both teams are coming in with a lot to prove to the world,"
Troy tailback DeWhitt Betterson said. "They probably feel as if
they're an underdog university, and we feel the same way."
Though both schools have entertaining, well-managed programs
certainly deserving of a postseason bid, it's hardly an ideal
matchup for the teams or the bowl itself, which has contracts with
two conferences -- the Pac-10 and the WAC -- that couldn't produce
enough bowl-eligible teams to fill their spots.
And for the first time in the Silicon Valley Classic's five-year
history, Fresno State and its thousands of faithful, red-clad fans
won't be at Spartan Stadium. The organizers always could count on
decent attendance to support the Bulldogs, and they aren't certain
how this unfamiliar matchup will be received.
But circumstances opened the door for two programs desperate for
any bit of national attention -- even if that exposure comes in
California with an 8 p.m. PST starting time and rain in the
"It's not like we're spoiled," Novak said. "I think you've
got two teams that are hungry for some national recognition and
respect. I had a lot of respect for Troy even before we knew we'd
meet them in a bowl game."
But the unlikely circumstances have led to an intriguing matchup
of two clubs with contrasting strengths and many similarities --
including the presence of folksy, charismatic head coaches who have
stuck with their programs despite interest from other schools.
Troy's defense is among the nation's most disruptive, ranking
among the top 10 in many major categories, while Northern Illinois'
offense scored at least 30 points in eight games this year. Both
teams prefer to run the ball, and Huskies senior quarterback Josh
Haldi has an edge in experience over Troy freshman D.T. McDowell.
"You watch them on film, and their defense has such great speed
and gets to the football so quick," Haldi said. "It's going to
come down to somebody making a big play at the end of the game."
The Trojans of the Sun Belt Conference opened the season with
upset victories over Marshall and Missouri, but lost four of their
next five games before closing with four straight wins. Northern
Illinois had its fifth straight winning season under Novak,
rebounding from a 1-2 start to tie Toledo atop the Mid-American
Conference's West Division.
"I think it's one of the best matchups out there," said
Blakeney, who's been at Troy since 1991, shepherding the school's
move to Division I-A in 2001. "It's something that will open a lot
of doors for both schools. ... We've got to get y'all's weather
straightened out, though. It's not quite as advertised."
The game might be won by the team that adjusts better to the
rain, the travel, the late game and the exhausting bowl experience.
Many players on both teams had never been to California before, and
they enjoyed their trips to Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge.
"I told them we were going to go to Fisherman's Wharf," Novak
said, referring to the sprawling San Francisco tourist destination.
"I think they thought we were just going to go look at a dock. ...
This whole thing is still a little new, but it's great for us."