College football fans who love some #MACtion will have an opportunity to see the Eastern Michigan Eagles take on the Northern Illinois Huskies on Thursday night. Both teams are members of the Mid-American Conference's West Division, but this is a game that will feature programs having completely different 2017 seasons.
Eastern Michigan (2-5, 0-3 MAC) could not have hoped for a better start to its 2017 season, beating Charlotte at home and Big Ten member Rutgers on the road to open at 2-0. Since then, however, the Eagles have lost five in a row, none of these games by more than a touchdown. Included in this stretch is a four-point loss at Kentucky, a five-point loss at Toledo and a one-point loss at Army. Last week, EMU fell to Western Michigan 20-17 in overtime.
Northern Illinois (6-2, 3-0) started things off with a 23-20 loss at home to Boston College but the only other setback since was a 34-28 outcome at then No. 19 San Diego State. The Huskies have won three in a row overall, all against conference teams, and also beat Nebraska in Lincoln back on Sept. 16. NIU has a showdown at Toledo after this game as the two teams are currently battling for the top spot in the MAC West.
Eastern Michigan at Northern Illinois
Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 26 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Northern Illinois -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Turnover battle
In last week's loss to Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan outgained the Broncos (459 to 422), but committed three turnovers compared to two for WMU. Takeaways have already played a big part for Northern Illinois, as the Huskies returned not one, but two Tanner Lee interceptions for touchdowns in their 21-17 upset of Nebraska earlier this season. The Eagles have been sloppier with the ball (-3 turnover margin entering this game) compared to the Huskies (+2), who are tied second nationally with 13 interceptions. Ball security needs to be a priority for EMU if the Eagles want to snap their long losing streak.
2. Northern Illinois' running game vs. Eastern Michigan’s run defense
The Huskies are fourth in the MAC in rushing at 191.6 yards per game. Jordan Huff leads the team and is fourth in the conference with 75 rushing yards per game. He did not play last week against Bowling Green, but Tommy Mister picked up the slack with 115 yards and a touchdown on just 17 carries (6.8 ypc). That was part of a season-best 338-yard effort on the ground for Northern Illinois, who cruised to a 48-17 win over the Falcons. Eastern Michigan ranks in the middle of the pack in the MAC when it comes to run defense, limiting teams to 183 rushing yards per game. The Eagles held Kentucky to just 53 rushing yards but also yielded 413 to Army, the third-ranked rushing attack in the nation. It’s too much to expect Eastern Michigan to completely shut down the Huskies on the ground, but the Eagles will have to do their part to make sure NIU doesn’t all over them on their home turf.
3. Eastern Michigan's passing offense vs. Northern Illinois' passing defense
Eagles quarterback Brogan Roback is fourth in the MAC in passing at 259.6 yards per game but he has just 10 touchdown passes and eight interceptions. He was solid against Western Michigan last week, completing 28 of 44 attempts for 308 yards, a touchdown and a pick. The Huskies have held up well against the pass, as they rank third in the conference (185.9 ypg), thanks to a group of ball hawks, including cornerback Shawun Lurry (above, right), that has recorded 13 interceptions (tied for second-most in the FBS). Eastern Michigan has been one of the least productive teams in the nation when it comes to running the ball (94.1 ypg, 124th nationally), so the Eagles no doubt want to air it out. However, that may not be the best strategy when it comes to beating Northern Illinois’ defense. Which side will get the better of this matchup?
When a team loses as many close games in a season in the manner that Eastern Michigan has this year, it is understandable if a mindset of "Here we go again" creeps in at the first sign of adversity. If Eastern Michigan is able to take better care of the football, the possibility of ending this five-game losing streak is there for the Eagles.
On the other side, Northern Illinois has the mindset of being able to withstand challenges, having won at Nebraska earlier this season. At 5-2 overall and three straight wins to open MAC play, the Huskies should be able to take care of business at home.