Midweek MACtion continues on Wednesday night with Central Michigan traveling to DeKalb to take on Northern Illinois. With both teams at 2-6 and 1-3 in league play, winning the division is likely out of reach as the season hits its final stretch. However, plenty is still at stake for both teams. The winner of this matchup will keep their bowl hopes alive for another week, and with the Huskies and Chippewas both having several toss-up games remaining on the slate, a run at six victories isn’t out of the question.
With an experienced roster and several key members of the two-deep returning, Northern Illinois had hopes of repeating as MAC champion in 2022. Unfortunately for coach Thomas Hammock, quarterback injuries, defensive struggles, and an inability to replicate last year’s luck in close games have derailed this team and a fast finish is needed to make a bowl. After beating Eastern Illinois in the opener, NIU has lost six out of its last seven games. However, five of those matchups came by one score and the other defeat came by 20 to the favorite (Toledo) to win the MAC West.
Central Michigan earned bowl trips in both full seasons (2019 and ’21) under coach Jim McElwain, so the program seemed to be a shoo-in for another postseason trek this year. However, a myriad of factors has pushed CMU to its first losing mark under McElwain. The Chippewas started 0-2 after defeats to Oklahoma State and South Alabama and later fell to Penn State, Toledo and Ball State before beating Akron to earn their first MAC win on Oct. 15.
Central Michigan holds a 31-25-1 edge over Northern Illinois in the all-time series. The Chippewas have won three out of the last five meetings, but the Huskies won 39-38 in Mount Pleasant last year.
Central Michigan at Northern Illinois
When Central Michigan Has the Ball
After averaging 32.3 points a game last season, Central Michigan’s offense enters November looking for answers. This unit averages only 19.8 points per contest in MAC play and ranks last in the league on a per-play basis (4.5). Several factors have contributed to the lack of production, including turnovers lost (18), a lack of big plays, struggles on the margin on third downs and in the red zone, and inconsistent quarterback play.
Any formula to foster a potential turnaround has to start on the ground. Running back Lew Nichols III ran for 1,848 yards last fall but only has 469 after six appearances. Nichols III missed CMU’s last game against Bowling Green and it’s uncertain if he will return on Wednesday night. If he can’t go, Marion Lukes (275) or Myles Bailey (276) is the next man up, but both players are dealing with injuries, which prompted Jake Tafelski and defensive back De’Javion Stepney to see time at running back against Bowling Green on Oct. 22. Partially due to a porous pass defense, Northern Illinois has faced the fewest rush attempts (268) of any team in the MAC. However, the Huskies have held up well on the ground, limiting opponents to 3.6 yards a carry. Can Central Michigan find consistency from a struggling offensive line and get production out of its ground game on Wednesday?
The question marks about this unit continue under center. Daniel Richardson started ’22 as the No. 1 quarterback but lost time to Jase Bauer in CMU’s last game. Richardson remains atop the depth chart for McElwain, but odds favor both quarterbacks getting into the game. Richardson has passed for 1,743 yards and 13 touchdowns, while Bauer has added 269 yards and a score through the air. It’s a small sample size, but Bauer’s accuracy (66.7 to 56.4 for Richardson) and yards per attempt (8.2 to 6.2) are better. Additionally, the Iowa native is a better runner (164 yards on 25 carries).
Whether it’s Bauer or Richardson under center, look for Carlos Carriere (39 rec.) and tight end Joel Wilson (41) to rank as the top weapons in the passing game. Northern Illinois has struggled to defend the pass all season, ranking 11th in the MAC in pass efficiency defense and surrendering 25 touchdowns through the air.
For the season, Northern Illinois is giving up 32.5 points and 5.53 yards per play to MAC opponents. Getting stops on third down and in the red zone has been an issue, but a struggling Central Michigan offense might be the right opponent for this unit to get on track in the final push to bowl eligibility.
When Northern Illinois Has the Ball
When Northern Illinois has the ball, it’s no secret what coach Thomas Hammock’s squad wants to do. The Huskies rank second in the MAC in rushing offense per game (202.3) and lead the conference in yards per carry (4.9). This offense has tallied 330 rushing attempts to just 217 pass attempts this year, so the key to success is clearly leaning on the ground game to help set up the passing attack.
Harrison Waylee (727 yards) and Antario Brown (575) headline the rushing attack and will handle the bulk of the carries once again for NIU on Wednesday night. This duo can churn out the short gains to keep the chains moving but also deliver a few big plays (combined for nine rushes of 30-plus yards in ’22). Although Waylee and Brown, along with a standout line, are the driving forces behind one of the MAC’s top ground games, Central Michigan is giving up 127.8 rushing yards a game in conference-only matchups this year. That puts the Chippewas fourth in the MAC, and this unit has been stingy on a per-carry basis (3.23). Led by linemen Thomas Incoom and Michael Heldman, CMU has thrived at getting into opposing backfields and creating negative plays with 71 tackles for a loss.
Due to injuries, three quarterbacks have received playing time for Northern Illinois this season. Rocky Lombardi opened as the starter after a solid debut in DeKalb last year, but the Michigan State transfer has only played in one contest (Oct. 15 at Eastern Michigan) since leaving the Sept. 17 game against Vanderbilt due to injury. Ethan Hampton took over the starter for the next three contests and paces the offense with 798 passing yards. However, Justin Lynch started the next two games after Hampton suffered an injury. It’s uncertain which quarterback will start on Wednesday night. But whichever player gets the nod, Cole Tucker (37 catches) and Kacper Rutkiewicz (20) should be the top targets in a passing game that’s produced only three completions of 40-plus yards in ’22.
Central Michigan’s defense isn’t dominant, but it’s also hard to pin the team’s slow start on this group. The Chippewas have held MAC opponents to 5.01 yards per snap and 27.5 points a game. If this unit can force a few more takeaways (just seven in ’22), that would help a group that’s thrived at getting off the field on third downs and finding ways to get stops in the red zone.
Considering both teams are dealing with injuries and uncertainty on which players will be in action on Wednesday night, it's hard to get a good read on this game. Central Michigan's offense has struggled, and if Nichols can't go, the Chippewas simply won't be able to keep their bowl hopes alive. And on the Northern Illinois' sideline, there's little clarity on which quarterback will go with the No. 1 offense. However, with a strong ground attack to lean on – even against a good CMU front – the Huskies should be able to do just enough to win this one.
Prediction: Northern Illinois 27, Central Michigan 24
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