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Sunday’s preview: Northern Illinois vs. Arkansas State

Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren will try capture bowl victory his first year helm Sunday when Huskies face Arkansas State

Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren will try to capture a bowl victory in his first year at the helm Sunday when the Huskies face Arkansas State in the Bowl. | Associated Press File Photo

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Updated: January 7, 2012 11:40PM

MOBILE, Ala. — Appetizers can be tasty, too.

While college football fans here on the Gulf Coast are anxiously awaiting the main course — Monday’s night’s rematch between LSU and Alabama in the BCS Championship in New Orleans — organizers of Sunday’s Bowl say they are expecting a near-capacity crowd at 40,646-seat Ladd-Peebles Stadium in the final title-game prelude at 8 o’clock.

That’s when 10-2 Arkansas State and 10-3 Northern Illinois kick it off on ESPN.

Not surprising, really. College football is king here in the heart of SEC Country, as visitors from Illinois and Arkansas this week can attest. Its coverage has led page 1 of both the news and sports sections in the local paper since Wednesday.

The national title contenders’ campuses in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Baton Rouge, La., after all, are both just 200 miles from Mobile, which is 143 miles from The Big Easy.

The GoDaddy, though, should be an entertaining shootout. The teams are led by a pair of dual-threat quarterbacks in NIU’s Chandler Harnish and ASU’s Ryan Aplin and average 38.3 points and 33.5, respectively.

That’s assuming, of course, they can quickly knock off the rust.

“Our challenge is to take a 36-day break and try to play our best football against a great team for four quarters. The opportunity to play the night before the national championship game is a huge, huge deal for both our teams,” said first-year Huskie coach Dave Doeren, whose team comes in with an eight-game winning streak.

It’s the longest such layoff in school history as Northern prepares for its fourth straight bowl game and sixth in eight years.

The Sun Belt Conference champ Red Wolves come in to their second bowl game since 2005 off a 35-day layoff with a nine-game winning streak but a coaching staff in a state of flux.

Shortly after the regular season ended, ASU’s Hugh Freeze took the head coaching job at the University of Mississippi and took four of his assistants with him. Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzaha has been named to replace him but won’t coach his first game until next season.

David Gunn, the Red Wolves’ running backs’ coach the past 10 years, has been named interim head coach. He’s added two interim assistants to fill out the staff and said Friday the team’s secondary coach (Corey Batoon) will act as defensive coordinator with former wide receivers coach Tyler Siskey calling the bulk of the plays.

“The (layoff) has been long, but the season started August 1st, so the break can serve as a helpful time for the players to get away from things,” Gunn said.

“How we respond to change determines whether we create a crisis or actually get better.”

Doeren and his staff won’t be without their challenges. Senior defensive tackle Ron Newcombe suffered an Achilles tendon injury in the Mid-American Conference championship game that required surgery and will not play. Also missing will be junior defensive end Sean Progar, a two-year starter who is facing DUI chargers following his arrest the day after the MAC title game.

“It’s been a great challenge (all year),” said Doeren, whose team lost nine starters from last season — including two linebackers and a safety who were not seniors. “Defensively, we’ve done nothing but improve from the (63-60) Toledo game. Every team (since) we’ve held under what they were used to getting.

“You turn the ball over four times against a championship-caliber team like Ohio (in the MAC title game) and hold them to 20 points, it means you’re doing something right.”

He’s hoping the next guys up on that D-line can continue the trend.

Freshman wide receiver Anthony Johnson, who was charged with underage consumption of alcohol the same night as Progar’s arrest but in a separate incident, will also be held out of the bowl game. A reserve, Johnson has 13 receptions for 174 yards this season.

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