8:00 PM EST, ESPN2 – Line: Northern Illinois -4.5
First place in the Mid-American Conference’s West Division is up for grabs tonight as the three-time defending MAC Champion Northern Illinois Huskies host the banged-up Toledo Rockets. Through nine games, Toledo (6-3, 5-0 in MAC) is undefeated in conference play, en route to holding down first place in their division. However, Matt Campbell’s charges can feel the Huskies breathing down their necks, which must bring up some bad memories that his team would rather forget. This time last year, Toledo welcomed Northern Illinois to their field, and went on to get blown out in a 35-17 drubbing in which the hosts allowed a ridiculous 506 yards of offense, 306 coming on the ground. It wasn’t as if Campbell’s offense couldn’t get things going, for they amassed well over 4oo yards themselves, but four turnovers ultimately did them in. Turnovers have again been a problem for them this season, with a minus-three differential, but the bigger problem of immediate concern is injuries, particularly under Center; Campbell already lost his planned starting Quarterback Phillip Ely in the second game of the season to a torn ACL, leaving the burden of running the offense on the shoulders of Sophomore Logan Woodside.
In his first extensive action, Woodside has played well sans experience, completing 61.4% of his passes for 1,691 yards (7.4 yards/attempt), fourteen touchdowns and five interceptions, while also rushing for 118 yards and three more scores on 42 carries. Last weekend in a 30-20 victory over Kent State, Woodside completed 16-of-25 passes (64.0%) for 202 yards and three touchdowns. However, he sustained a leg injury towards the end of that contest, leaving his availability for tonight’s outing up in the air. If he cannot go tonight than Campbell will have to turn to Michael Julian, who has attempted just eleven passes this season. Despite the turnover under Center, the offense has performed well, scoring 31.0 points on a very balanced 496.6 yards, including 250.6 yards through the air and another 246.0 on the ground. The ground game has really helped whomever has started at Quarterback, with tailbacks Kareem Hunt and Terry Swanson rushing for 866 and 660 yards respectively, ranking first and second in the MAC in yards per carry (8.4 and 6.8). The rushing attack has also helped keep the defense off the field, which has been downright terrible on several occasions this season. Campbell’s defense has allowed 28.9 points on 437.0 yards per contest, including 323.7 versus the pass. Opposing Quarterbacks have had their way with the Rockets, completing 64.3% of their attempts for nearly three passing touchdowns per game. In the win over Kent State, Toledo broke a three-game streak in which they yielded at least 400 yards of offense.
Meanwhile, given the injury situation under Center in Toledo, Northern Illinois (7-2, 4-1 in MAC) has a golden opportunity to climb into first place in the MAC West. The three-time reigning Conference Champions may have said goodbye to Jordan Lynch, the NCAA’s all-time leader in total yards, but haven’t missed a beat with his successor Drew Hare propelling the offense. Through nine games, the offense has averaged 28.8 points on 456.0 yards, including 265.7 yards on the ground, where this team can be as dominant as any in the country. Rod Carey’s charges are churning out 5.1 yards per carry, with five different Huskies rushing for at least 199 yards, and a total of nine scoring at least one rushing touchdown. In last weekend’s 35-21 victory at Ball State, the offense posted 385 total yards, yet a pair of turnovers kept the score from reaching the forties. It was a rare sight for a unit that has only committed seven turnovers this season, fewest in the MAC.
Again, the main reason for so few turnovers is the team’s prolific rushing attack which limits the opportunity to turn the ball over in the first place. Keep this in mind; the Huskies attempt 51.8 rushes per game opposed to just 26.9 passes, which amounts to 65.8% of their plays being run plays. In the spirit of his predecessor Lynch, Hare has seamlessly integrated himself into the running game, rushing for 621 yards and five touchdowns on 6.6 yards per carry, teaming up with Cameron Stingily, who leads Northern Illinois with 624 yards and seven scores on 5.4 yards per rush. The Senior Tailback had himself a day at Ball State, trampling the hosts to the tune of 148 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries, while Hare added another 40 yards. That was a modest figure for the Quarterback, who had gashed the likes of Miami (Ohio) and Eastern Michigan for a total of 346 yards over the course of the previous two contests. With that said, don’t let these guys fool you into thinking that they can’t beat you through the air; with defenses committing more bodies towards stopping the run, Carey and Co. Have proven capable of making them pay downfield, with Hare completing 60.5% of his passes for 1,352 yards (7.3 yards/attempt), eleven touchdowns and just one interception. Senior Receiver Da’Ron Brown has reeled in 44 receptions for 747 yards (-6.8 yards/catch) and five touchdowns, which could spell bad news for Toledo and their struggling pass defense.