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MAC Championship Preview and Prediction: Bowling Green vs. Northern Illinois

Travis Greene

Travis Greene

Bowling Green and Northern Illinois meet for the second consecutive year in Detroit for the MAC Championship Game. The stakes are a little lower in this season’s matchup, as the Huskies entered last year's game undefeated and had a chance at a marquee bowl. However, the Falcons used a huge performance from quarterback Matt Johnson to end Northern Illinois’ unbeaten season. Much has changed about both programs since last season, as the Huskies had to replace standout quarterback Jordan Lynch and Dino Babers was hired from Eastern Illinois to replace Dave Clawson, who left to be the head coach at Wake Forest.

Bowling Green owns an 11-7 series edge over Northern Illinois. The Falcons snapped a three-game losing streak to the Huskies in last year’s MAC Championship. These two teams have played only once in the regular season since 2011. This is the second meeting between Northern Illinois and Bowling Green in the MAC Championship.

Bowling Green vs. Northern Illinois

Kickoff: 7 p.m. ET (Friday)

TV Channel: ESPN2

Spread: Northern Illinois -6.5

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Bowling Green’s Key to Victory: Get QB James Knapke Back on Track

Bowling Green is just 2-3 over its last five games, and a big problem during that span has been the play of its quarterbacks. Of course, any discussion about the Falcons’ passing attack has to rewind back to the season opener. Starter Matt Johnson suffered a season-ending injury against Western Kentucky, and Knapke – a sophomore from Indiana – has been pressed into the starting role. Knapke has the keys to a potent offense, as first-year coach Dino Babers preaches a “falcon fast” approach, and Bowling Green has ran the most plays in the MAC this season. Knapke has just two touchdown passes in his last four games and passed for just 71 yards against Toledo and 140 against Ball State. The sophomore has a solid group of receivers at his disposal, and running back Travis Greene returned from injury to rush for 159 yards and a score in the season finale. The playmakers are there for Babers. However, the Bowling Green offense won’t get on track without a solid performance from Knapke.

Northern Illinois’ Key to Victory: Establish the Run
The Huskies rank second in the MAC with an average of 246.2 rushing yards per game. Quarterback Drew Hare leads the squad with 790 yards, but there’s a cast of running backs available to contribute. The best of the bunch is Cameron Stingily (4.9 ypc), and Joel Bouagnon and Akeem Daniels also help contribute to the ground attack. The effectiveness of the rush attack has fueled the Northern Illinois offense this season, as the passing game ranks 12th in the MAC with an average of 187.2 yards per game. Hare has tossed 15 touchdown passes to just one interception in 2014, but it’s clear this offense isn’t as explosive through the air as it was under Lynch. And leaning on the rushing attack on Friday night is ideal with a Bowling Green defense ranked 10th in the MAC against the run. The Falcons allowed 325 rushing yards to Toledo and 199 to Ball State. The opportunity is there with a veteran offensive line and talented group of rushers for Northern Illinois to control the time of possession and pound away at the Falcons’ defense.

Final Analysis

Revenge should be on the mind of Northern Illinois. The Huskies had a chance to play in a marquee bowl last season, but the Falcons pulled off an upset in last year’s MAC title game. If Northern Illinois establishes its ground attack and continues to take care of the ball (10 lost turnovers in 2014), coach Rod Carey’s team will claim its third conference championship in four years. The Huskies rank sixth in the MAC against the run, which should allow Bowling Green to use Greene and the rest of the backfield to take some of the pressure off of quarterback James Knapke. The Falcons fall short of winning back-to-back MAC titles, as Northern Illinois gets revenge from last year’s loss.

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Prediction: Northern Illinois 30, Bowling Green 20