Northern Illinois looks to maintain its spot atop the MAC West standings when it faces Akron in a conference crossover matchup on Thursday night in primetime. The Huskies (5-3, 4-0 MAC) are one win away from being bowl eligible for the 10th time in the last 12 seasons and are inching closer to their first MAC Championship Game appearance since 2015. The Zips (4-3, 2-2) need two victories to have a shot at back-to-back bowl games for the first time in program history.
It won't be easy for Terry Bowden's Akron team. After hosting Northern Illinois the Zips get Eastern Michigan followed by Bowling Green and will close out the season against Ohio, who is a game in the loss column behind Buffalo for the top spot in the East division.
The Huskies have won four in a row, including a 7-6 defensive slugfest on the road last week out west against BYU. Northern Illinois is definitely battle tested after going through a non-conference gauntlet that had it opening the season against Iowa and Utah and also included a trip to Tallahassee to play Florida State. Akron has won two in a row but those victories over Kent State and Central Michigan (who are a combined 3-15) came by a total of eight points.
Northern Illinois at Akron
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 1 at 7 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Northern Illinois -6
Three Things to Watch
1. The Huskies have put it all together on offense
There was concern about the Huskies offense early in the season, but they’ve really picked things up over these last few weeks. During this winning streak NIU has scored 81 total points and quarterback Marcus Childers has developed into the duel-threat that the Huskies hoped he would be (794 total yards, responsible for four touchdowns). The team's running back by committee approach during this stretch — with junior Marcus Jones, sophomore Tre Harbison, and freshman Jordan Nettles (they’ve combined for 499 yards and five touchdowns) — has kept opposing defenses guessing. It also helps when you have one of the best offensive lines in the country.
2. The Huskies are also solid on defense
Two things that the NIU defense has done quite well during these last four games has been getting to the quarterback and forcing turnovers. In all the Huskies have gathered 12 sacks (five last week against BYU), eight quarterback hurries (six of which came against Ball State three weeks ago), two interceptions, and six forced fumbles. Junior defensive end Sutton Smith is making another case to be MAC Defensive Player of the Year as he has recorded 10 tackles, three sacks, and two forced fumbles in the last four games alone.
3. Don’t sleep on the Zips
Akron won’t go down without a fight and they have had their moments this season. In September they upset Northwestern on the road to give the program its first win over a Big Ten team since 1894. A week later they went to Iowa State, and despite losing that game they held the Cyclones to just a touchdown in the first quarter, and kept them scoreless in the third quarter. Last week they held a Central Michigan team who’d been averaging 20 points per game to just 10 points, and their overtime win over Kent State two weeks ago kept the Golden Flashes winless in conference play.
Zips sophomore quarterback Kato Nelson is a duel-threat in his own right as he has 1,348 passing yards, 315 rushing yards, he’s accounted for 10 touchdowns this year, and he’s been sacked only three times in the last three games. If the Huskies don’t contain him it will be a long night in Northeast Ohio.
Akron is 2-1 at home this year and they’ve outscored visitors 75-58. But NIU has won its last three road games by a combined score of 57-45, they’ve outscored MAC opponents 98-76, and they’ve gone 3-1 in their last four meeting with the Zips. The offenses keep this game entertaining, the defenses keep the score close, but the Huskies manage to pull out another tight victory.
Prediction: Northern Illinois 26, Akron 23
— 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 NIUHuskies.com)