We definitely have a chip on our shoulder and a lot of people are overlooking our defense," Aplin said. "We're not on television all the time, but those guys are our backbone.
MOBILE, Ala. — Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren is a huge fan of quarterback Chandler Harnish.
There's no wonder why. He's the top rushing quarterback in the Football Bowl Subdivision, averaging more than 106 yards per game, and had thrown for 2,942 yards, 26 touchdowns and just five interceptions.
But that's not what gets Doeren excited. Instead, his voice starts to rise when he talks about the way the 6-foot-2, 220-pound plays when the Huskies need him most.
"He plays his best when the game is on the line — that's what makes him special," Doeren said. "When things get tough, you want the ball in his hands. We've been down by 20 and he's brought us back. He relishes that moment and he makes the clutch plays. That's all you can ever want as a coach."
Harnish leads Northern Illinois (10-3) against Arkansas State (10-2) on Sunday in the GoDaddy.com Bowl at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. The Huskies have an eight-game winning streak and won the Mid-American Conference while the Red Wolves are riding a nine-game winning streak and won the Sun Belt Conference.
Neither team has lost in months, but the winning streaks are quite different. Northern Illinois has won by less than a touchdown in five of the past eight wins, with the Huskies needing Harnish's heroics on multiple occasions. Arkansas State has been blowing opponents out, winning five of its past six by at least two touchdowns.
"We've been a resilient team and really bounce back in the fourth quarter," Harnish said. "That's not necessarily the way anybody wants it, but I think there is an advantage in that we've made the game-winning plays in the final minutes before."
Arkansas State's been a juggernaut on the field. Instead, its adversity has come off of it.
The Red Wolves had their most successful season since joining the Football Bowl Subdivision under first-year coach Hugh Freeze, but the 42-year-old left last month to take the head coaching job at Mississippi. After several days of uncertainty, the program made a stunning hire when it lured highly coveted Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn.
Malzahn will attend the game as a spectator not the coach.
"I'll be on the sideline a little bit, in the press box," he said. "I just don't want to be a distraction. That's their team. They've earned the right to get here. So I just want to root them on and try and get that 11th victory."
Arkansas State's players admitted there have been huge swings in emotion over the past month, but interim coach David Gunn said he hopes that won't have any effect when the Red Wolves take the field.
"Change is the nature of this sport — especially in college," Gunn said. "But change doesn't create the crisis, it's how you respond to the change that matters. We've got a lot of seniors, and they've responded very well. I don't expect any drop off."
Arkansas State has its own star quarterback in Ryan Aplin. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound junior has numbers similar to Harnish, with 3,235 yards passing, 18 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He's also the team's leading rusher. The Red Wolves have scored at least 30 points in each of the past six games.
But Aplin said the team's defense is what has made the biggest difference in lifting Arkansas State from an also-ran in the Sun Belt to the championship.
"We definitely have a chip on our shoulder and a lot of people are overlooking our defense," Aplin said. "We're not on television all the time, but those guys are our backbone."
Harnish said he hoped Northern Illinois' coaching stability would provide an advantage going into Sunday's game, but knows from experience that might not be the case. The Huskies won their bowl game last season against Fresno State despite losing coach Jerry Kill to Minnesota.
"It's kind of scary, because you don't know how they'll react," Harnish said. "It could be an advantage, but sometimes when a coach leaves a team can become stronger. We can't worry about that, we have to worry about executing on our end."
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