GAME NOTES: After an impressive finish to their three-game road trip, the Central Michigan Chippewas return home to Kelly/Shorts Stadium for a Mid- American Conference tilt with the No. 23 Northern Illinois Huskies.
The Huskies have been a dominant force in the MAC in recent history, winning the last two league titles as well as their last 19 games against conference rivals, giving them longest active conference winning streak in the nation. NIU's success has not diminished under first-year head coach Rod Carey as it enters with a 6-0 overall record that includes victories over both Iowa (30-27) and Purdue (55-24), making it the only team in MAC history to defeat two Big Ten schools in one season. The Huskies improved to 2-0 in conference action last week with a 27-20 decision over Akron and extended their FBS- leading home winning streak to 23 in the process.
The Chippewas improved to 2-1 in the league standings last week with a shocking, 26-23, upset of Ohio University on the road at Peden Stadium. The win did not come easy as CMU trailed before Cooper Rush completed a five-yard pass to Courtney Williams for the game-winning touchdown with only 22 seconds left in regulation. CMU's only prior victories came over FCS foe New Hampshire (24-21) and the winless Miami-Ohio RedHawks (21-9). Coach Dan Enos now has his team within one win of the .500 mark after a 1-4 start.
NIU is trailing CMU, 25-22-1, in the all-time series after the Huskies narrowed the gap with a 55-24 rout last season in DeKalb.
With the reigning MAC player of the year Jordan Lynch spearheading the charge, NIU has been unstoppable offensively, leading to conference leading averages in both points per game (39.7) and total offense (507.8). Lynch became the 10th player in FBS history to run for more than 3,000 yards and pass for more than 4,000 with 83 rushing yards on 15 carries versus Akron last week. Despite being in just his second year as the team's starting quarterback, the senior has 3,039 career rushing and 4,650 career passing yards.
Lynch had one of his worst career outings as a passer against the Zips, completing only 16-of-35 attempts and one touchdown. The team still got the job done as a few of his teammates stepped up their play.
"I don't think defenses have much of answer for all of us," said Lynch after the win. "There are tons of playmakers around me. They can't just key in on me. We have (Cameron) Stingily in the backfield and (Da'Ron) Brown and (Tommylee) Lewis on the outside."
The team's newest weapon to emerge, Cameron Stingily, added 80 yards and a score on 21 carries, while Tommylee Lewis reeled in six passes for 58 yards against Akron. Stingily has compiled 552 rushing yards and five touchdowns over his past four games. The junior tailback had a breakout performance against Kent State in NIU's last road contest with 267 yards and two scores on 37 attempts. Lewis leads the team in receptions with 40, which he has turned into 346 yards and two touchdowns. Da'Ron Brown has racked up 424 yards and five touchdowns on 28 receptions, but no other Huskie has more than nine grabs on the campaign.
NIU was shaky on the defensive side of the ball in its first four games of the season, allowing averages of 499.3 yards of offense and 31.3 points per game to three weak FBS teams and a top-notch FCS school in Eastern Illinois. Carey's team has shown improvement since entering MAC action by holding both KSU and Akron under 400 total yards. Senior safety Jimmie Ward made his fifth interception of the season against Akron last week to make it four games in a row he has picked off the opposing quarterback. Ward looks to be on track for his third consecutive selection to an All-MAC team with a team-high 50 tackles.
The Chippewas' victory at Ohio was even more impressive considering they were without their leading receiver Titus Davis, who is expected to return this week. His presence is huge as he is second in the nation among active players with a career 19.0 yards per reception average and is ninth with a 71.0 receiving yards per game average. Williams assumed the role of go-to-guy in the aerial attack with Davis out.
"When one of us goes down, the others are expected to pick up the group," said Williams. "That's just a given. We had some players step up and make good plays. I give a lot of credit to (Saylor) Lavallii; he did a lot of work out there and a great job."
Lavallii powered CMU past the Bobcats as he racked up a career-best 184 yards on 26 carries and also made a touchdown catch. The sophomore tailback entered the season as the team's back-up before an injury to All-MAC rusher Zurlon Tipton put him in the limelight. Lavallii has been a work horse so far as he ranks third among FBS player with 138 carries and contributes an average of 100.7 rushing yards per outing.
Rush is also deserving of some acknowledgement for last week's upset. The redshirt freshman connected with his target on 20-of-28 pass attempts for 224 yards and three touchdowns. CMU finished with fewer total yards (432) than Ohio (439), but the Chippewas had nearly 36 minutes of possession time and converted 9-of-17 third-down attempts. Due to the slow start, the team is only tied for eighth in the MAC in scoring offense at 18.9 ppg.
The Chippewas have plenty of room for improvement defensively also. They are ranked 10th among MAC schools in scoring defense with an allowance of 32.7 points per game although they are fifth in total defense (413.3 ypg). CMU's opponents are also posting 409 total yards of offense per outing. Enos has a very capable pair of linebackers in Justin Cherocci and Shamari Benton, who are tied for the conference lead with 73 total tackles apiece. The duo has combined for 404 tackles over the last 20 games, an average of over 20 tackles per game.
Whether by a narrow margin or a comfortable double-digit cushion, NIU has been able to find a way to win 18 of the 20 games its played since Lynch took over as the full-time starter. CMU's victory over Ohio last week definitely alerted the Huskies that their trip to Mount Pleasant will not be a cakewalk. The Chippewas escaped Athens with a victory thanks to four forced turnovers, including a fumble recovery on a muffed punt. They will need to find a way to pressure NIU's very disciplined offense into a few miscues to keep the winning streak alive.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Northern Illinois 45, Central Michigan 27