Wednesday night's MAC crossover matchup between Miami (Ohio) and Northern Illinois pits one team already making postseason plans against one that needs to win out if it wants to be a part of the fun. The RedHawks (4-6, 4-2 MAC) are still two wins away from bowl eligibility while the Huskies (7-3, 6-0) have already secured a spot in the MAC Championship Game by virture of winning the West Division following Western Michigan's overtime loss to Ball State on Tuesday night.
Miami got off to a slow start, losing its first three games but has fared well in conference play and still has a shot at becoming bowl eligible. However, for next week's home game against the aforementioned Cardinals to even matter in that respect, the RedHawks must do something they haven't done since 2010 — beat Northern Illinois.
And it won't be easy considering the Huskies have won six in a row and are undefeated in MAC play. NIU has lost just once at home this season and that was to Utah back on Sept. 8. The Huskies haven't lost at all since Sept. 22 and have put up 74 points in their last two victories alone.
This game also takes on some added significance in that the winner will be presented with the inaugural Mallory Cup. The Mallory Cup is a brand-new trophy attached to this game, named in honor of the late Bill Mallory, who led both teams to MAC championships during his coaching career. Mallory is a member of the Northern Illinois, Miami and MAC halls of fame. Mallory passed away in late May.
Miami (Ohio) at Northern Illinois
Kickoff: Wednesday, Nov. 14 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Northern Illinois -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Marcus Childers keeps the ball moving for Northern Illinois
The Huskies' sophomore quarterback doesn’t exactly light up the box score every week but he keeps the ball moving and the Huskies keep putting points on the board as a result. During this six-game winning streak he’s completed 99-of-165 passes for 843 yards and four touchdowns. He’s also run the ball 85 times for 337 yards and an additional four scores. He’s completing 57 percent of his passes and averaging close to five yards per carry. His dual-threat abilities complement NIU's offense well, while certainly not explosive (21.1 ppg, tied for 10th in the MAC), it has been effective. Childers will need to continue to make the plays, move the chains and limit the mistakes as the Huskies stick to the formula that been so successful for them this season.
2. Tre Harbison leading the way on the ground for the Huskies
Northern Illinois has remained grounded this year on offense, as the Huskies lead the MAC in rushing attempts with 439 in 10 games. Four different players have recorded at least 54 carries, including the quarterback, Childers. But it's Harbison who has somewhat emerged from NIU's crowded backfield. The sophomore leads the team and is second in the conference with 804 rushing yards. In the last two games alone, he's run for 308 yards while averaging seven yards per carry. He doesn't get into the end zone a lot (four rushing TDs), but the combination of him and Childers will be tough for Miami's defense to stop. The RedHawks have been pretty good against the run this season, but they gave up 201 yards in last week's loss to Ohio.
3. Keeping Gus Ragland upright
While Northern Illinois likes to the run the ball and then throw, Miami's offense flows through senior quarterback Gus Ragland. The numbers may not jump off of the page, but Ragland has been effective against MAC foes. In six conference games, he's completing nearly two thirds of pass attempts with nine touchdowns and just two interceptions while averaging 225 yards per game through the air. He can make things happen with his legs if need be, but the key for the RedHawks' offense is to give Ragland enough time to throw.
And that could be a problem going up against a Huskies defense that is tied for the national lead in sacks with 38. Reigning MAC Defensive Player of the Year and All-America candidate Sutton Smith (nine sacks, four forced fumbles) leads the way, but he's not only one capable of bringing pressure and getting to the quarterback. Miami's offensive line will have to have its act together to give their quarterback a chance, so it's not exactly an encouraging sign that Ragland has been sacked 16 times over the last five games.
Northern Illinois hasn't lost to Miami since 2010, has won six in a row overall and its only loss at home this season was to a Power 5 team. Gus Ragland's experience and playmaking ability usually gives the RedHawks a chance to compete with just about any team, but the defense has been too inconsistent and the Huskies boast the nation's most productive pass rush. NIU has too many playmakers on both side of the ball for Miami to deal with. The RedHawks will put up a fight, but in the end the Huskies extend their winning streak to seven.
Prediction: Northern Illinois 30, Miami (Ohio) 20
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo courtesy of NIU Athletics)