College football’s midweek MACtion continues on Tuesday night, as Northern Illinois hosts Eastern Michigan in a key game for positioning within the MAC’s West Division. The Eagles sit 5-5 with two games remaining and need to reach seven wins to improve their bowl hopes. Even at 4-6 overall, the Huskies still have a chance to win the West. First-year coach Thomas Hammock’s squad needs to win out and have some help, but Northern Illinois is still alive in the race to get to Detroit for the conference title game.
Hammock’s first season at the helm of his alma mater started with three Power 5 opponents (Utah, Nebraska and Vanderbilt) over the first four games and five road matchups over the team’s first seven contests. The difficult schedule certainly played a role in the 1-4 start by Northern Illinois, but this team has clawed back to bowl contention with wins in three out of its last five games. The Huskies are coming off a huge road victory at Toledo last Wednesday and need wins versus Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan (Nov. 26) to have a shot at a bowl game and a chance at the MAC West title.
While Eastern Michigan sits at the bottom of the MAC West with a 2-4 record in league play, there’s plenty at stake for coach Chris Creighton’s team on Tuesday night. The Eagles need at least one win to secure bowl eligibility, but a sweep of the team’s final two contests (Northern Illinois and Kent State) would almost ensure the program goes to the postseason. Eastern Michigan has never been to back-to-back bowl games, so Creighton’s squad is just two wins away from setting a new mark in the program’s record book.
Northern Illinois holds a 33-14-2 series edge over Eastern Michigan. The Eagles haven’t won in DeKalb since 2007.
Eastern Michigan at Northern Illinois
Kickoff: Tuesday, Nov. 19 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Northern Illinois -4.5
When Eastern Michigan Has the Ball
Eastern Michigan’s offense is coming one of its best efforts of the 2019 season. The Eagles scored 42 points (a season high) and averaged 7.4 yards per play in last Tuesday’s win over against Akron. Additionally, Creighton’s attack showed good balance (252 on the ground and 246 through the air) and scored on five out of their first seven possessions.
Last week’s performance helped Eastern Michigan’s season totals improve to 27.8 points a game and 5.8 yards per play. Those numbers aren’t particularly overwhelming, but the Eagles do a good job of limiting mistakes (13 lost turnovers) and can lean heavily on quarterback Mike Glass to carry this unit. The senior is the driving force behind Eastern Michigan’s passing game, which enters Week 13 ranked No. 1 in the MAC (274.9 ypg). Glass leads the MAC with an average of 248.6 passing yards a game and has connected on 65.2 percent of his throws. The senior hasn’t tossed an interception over his last three appearances and will also be a factor on the ground (277 rushing yards and six scores). Glass has one of the MAC’s top receiving corps at his disposal. Four players – Mathew Sexton, Quian Williams, Arthur Jackson III and Dylan Drummond – have caught at least 30 passes this year.
Eastern Michigan’s ground game and overall play in the trenches have had its share of issues at times this season. Last week against Akron, the Eagles eclipsed more than 170 rushing yards in a game for the first time this year (252). Despite that performance, this offense is averaging only 3.6 yards per carry. Running back Shaq Vann is coming off his best effort of the season (142 yards) versus Akron, but running room could be limited against a tough Northern Illinois front. Led by standout tackle Jack Heflin (7 TFL and 2 sacks), the Huskies rank third in the MAC versus the run. However, while Northern Illinois has been one of the conference’s best against opposing ground games, injuries to the linebacker unit have been a problem, and this unit has allowed each of its last two opponents to exceed 200 rushing yards.
Northern Illinois led the MAC by holding teams to 4.78 yards a play last season, but this unit is giving up 6.02 through 10 games in 2019. The Huskies aren’t generating much of a pass rush with Sutton Smith no longer coming off the edge, but the secondary still ranks third in the MAC in pass efficiency defense. Additionally, this unit has excelled at getting off the field on third downs (third in the MAC).
Can Eastern Michigan replicate last week’s production versus Akron and find the necessary balance on offense to win in DeKalb? Even if the ground game picks up where it left off, the Eagles need a huge game from Glass to pick up their sixth victory.
When Northern Illinois Has the Ball
The stat sheet wasn’t kind to the Northern Illinois’ offense last season. The Huskies averaged only 4.52 yards a play and a paltry 20.1 points a game. Entering Tuesday night’s game, it’s clear Hammock and his staff have made some gains but plenty of work remains. Northern Illinois has improved its per-play average to 5.4 and ranks 10th in the MAC in scoring (24 ppg).
California graduate transfer Ross Bowers has added some punch to a passing game that averaged just over 155 yards a contest last fall. Northern Illinois ranks fourth in the MAC in passing offense (241.9 ypg), with Bowers connecting on 57.8 percent of his throws for 2,130 yards and seven touchdowns to eight picks. Last year’s starter Marcus Childers has worked as a change-of-pace option this season and added two rushing scores and 57 yards over five carries in last week’s win over Toledo. Both quarterbacks need to play a role if Northern Illinois is going to keep its West Division title hopes alive on Tuesday night.
Receiver Cole Tucker (37 catches) has been the go-to target this season, but the Huskies have a talented combination at tight end with Daniel Crawford and Mitchell Brinkman combining for 62 grabs. The Crawford-Brinkman pairing at tight end is a tough matchup for an Eastern Michigan defense ranked ninth in the MAC in pass efficiency defense and has allowed the most passing plays of 40 yards or more (11) in the conference.
Considering Hammock is a former running back and Northern Illinois’ track record of churning out successful ground games, it should be no surprise this offense leans on the run once again in 2019. Tre Harbison paces the offense with 909 yards and eight rushing scores, with Jordan Nettles (229) entrenched as the No. 2 option. The Huskies don’t generate a ton of big plays out of the ground game, but the combined rushing ability of Childers, Harbison, Bowers and Nettles is a big reason why Northern Illinois ranks second in the MAC in time of possession.
Similar to Northern Illinois, Eastern Michigan’s defense isn’t as dominant as it was last season. The Eagles had to replace a handful of talented players up front, and the stat sheet certainly reflects it going into Tuesday night’s matchup. Creighton’s defense ranks eighth in the MAC against the run and is giving up 31.3 points a contest. Additionally, Eastern Michigan has only 17 sacks and is giving up 6.2 yards a play.
If recent trends mean anything, a close game should be on tap for Tuesday night. Northern Illinois has won each of the last three games in this series by seven points or less, and on paper, not much separates these two teams. The Huskies are allowing only 12.3 points in home contests this season. For Eastern Michigan to earn its sixth victory, Glass and his receivers will have to find room to operate against one of the MAC’s top defensive backfields. Northern Illinois needs to lean on its strength (the ground game) and avoid the mistakes (10 turnovers) that have plagued this team in losses. This one is a tossup, but the Huskies have dominated this series in recent years and have the homefield edge on Tuesday night.