GAME NOTES: The 20th-ranked Northern Illinois Huskies put their perfect record on the line, as they enter a battle for first place in the Mid-American Conference's West Division with the Toledo Rockets on Wednesday night at the Glass Bowl.
The Huskies improved to 10-0 last week with an impressive 48-27 victory over Ball Sate, which came into the contest with a 9-1 overall record and a perfect mark in conference play. Northern Illinois is hoping to reach a BCS Bowl for the second consecutive season, which is certainly possible if it continues winning as it is currently sits 16th in the BCS rankings.
Coach Rod Carey's team has been impressive throughout the 2013 campaign, as it has notched wins over a pair of Big Ten opponents in Iowa and Purdue on the road, and continued its dominance in the MAC with 23 straight league victories, which is the longest active conference winning streak in the nation. The Huskies have not lost to a MAC foe since Oct. 1, 2011. NIU has survived some very challenging opponents to this point, but this week's may be its toughest yet.
The Rockets have not been in the national spotlight like their opponent in this clash, but they have quietly built an impressive resume'. Their only three losses came on the road to legitimate foes in Florida, Missouri and Ball State. Toledo has compiled a 7-3 overall record and is coming off a thrilling 51-41 victory over Buffalo, which came into the contest with a perfect conference record. The team has also downed Bowling Green, which is tied with the Bulls for first place in the West Division thanks to the outcome of last week's shootout at the Glass Bowl. The Rockets' wins over the West Division leaders would give them the tie-breaker over both NIU and Ball State if all three finish the regular season with one conference loss.
Since the Huskies and Rockets both have regular season finales they are expected to win, a trip to Detroit for this year's MAC Championship Game will most likely be decided in this bout.
History is on the Rockets' side as they own a 29-11 series lead over NIU. However, the Huskies have won three straight. Although NIU went undefeated in MAC play in 2012, it's final game during that stretch came when it held off a late Toledo rally for a 31-24 win at home.
"They're a great team," said NIU tight end Luke Eukes. "We've had problems with them in the past and they always come out to play well. They're always fired up to play us and we're fired up to play them. So, I consider them our biggest rival."
NIU has been arguably the top non-major conference program since Jordan Lynch took over under center in 2012. The senior signal caller has gone 22-2 as a starter with the only losses coming to Iowa at Solider Field in Chicago, and against Florida State in the 2013 Orange Bowl. Lynch is ranked fifth nationally in total yards per game at 348.9. Despite playing only two full seasons, the dual-threat QB is one of just nine players in FBS history with more than 3,000 career rushing yards and 5,000 career passing yards.
"I've said it all along that he is a leader in every way, shape, and form on this team," said Carey. "I think that when our team is standing there and he's on the field offensively and they're making plays as a unit, that also inspires the defense to do that. It's not a coincidence, believe me. When our offense is making plays, our defense makes plays. They feed off of each other. You can feel that as games go."
Lynch completed 26-of-32 passes for 345 yards, including two touchdown throws to Da'Ron Brown versus Ball State. He also rushed for 123 yards and two additional scores. Brown set a career-high with 209 receiving yards, while TommyLee Lewis also set a new personal-best with 12 receptions for 74 yards. The wideout duo has combined for 115 catches, 1,315 yards and 12 touchdowns this season. NIU also has a capable tailback in Cameron Stingily, who enters the week ranked seventh in the MAC in rushing at 90.2 ypg, and has registered nine rushing scores in as many games.
The Huskies surrendered 494 yards of total offense to BSU last week, but the defensive unit held the Cardinals 12 points under their scoring average by shutting them out in the final frame. Joe Windsor put the punctuation mark on the win with a 49-yard interception return for a touchdown in the final minute. Senior safety Jimmy Ward is a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, as he ranks second on the team in tackles with 64 and is tied for first in the MAC with five picks.
Ward will face an experienced quarterback in Terrance Owens, who completed just 11-of-20 passes, but threw for 228 yards with two touchdowns to Bernard Reedy against Buffalo last week. The Rockets have been on fire during their winning streak, posting an average of 45.2 ppg. They racked up 601 yards of total offense, including 350 in the first half, and scored 51 points against the Bulls, who had allowed a total of 53 points over their previous six outings.
Reedy has racked up 55 receptions for a team-high 736 yards on the season. Alonzo Russell has also been a factor in the aerial attack with 571 yards and five touchdowns.
With star halfback David Fluellen still sidelined with an injury, rookie Kareem Hunt registered his fourth straight 100-yard game with a season-high 186 yards last week.
"Kareem is a really good football player. To do what he's done as a freshman is impressive," said Rockets coach Matt Campbell. "He's really worked hard in practice and stayed the course. A lot of credit goes to our offensive line in addition to all the work Kareem has put in. It will be fun to watch how his career progresses."
Fluellen's status is uncertain for this week, but if he returns Toledo will have two very dangerous options out of the backfield behind a very reliable offensive line, which has allowed just four sacks this season -- fewest in the nation.
Although Toledo allowed more than 600 yards to the Bulls in its last appearance, it is still in the middle of the pack in the MAC rankings with average yields of 27.7 points and 415.1 yards per game. Linebacker Junior Sylvestre is second the MAC and 20th in the nation with 9.8 tackles per game.
The Rockets are 10-1 at the Glass Bowl under Campbell, and the Huskies have more road victories than any team in the FBS in 2013. Something is bound to give when these two unstoppable forces collide. Toledo has held its own against some high-level competition this season. Whichever team survives this will certainly be the favorite to be crowned the conference champion in Detroit a couple weeks from now.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Northern Illinois 38, Toledo 35