#MACtion returns to Provo for the first time in two years as Northern Illinois comes west to take on BYU. The last time a MAC team traveled to BYU, it was an entertaining one with a pair of future NFL running backs running wild in BYU’s Jamaal Williams (Green Bay Packers) and Toledo’s Kareem Hunt (Kansas City Chiefs).
There were a lot of fireworks on the offensive end for both BYU and Toledo that night. Will the same offensive production happen this Saturday between the Huskies and Cougars? The numbers would say… not a chance. But both teams feel as though they’ve turned a corner and are coming out of the bye week ready to finish the second halves of their respective seasons strong, and Saturday’s game should be a good test for both squads.
This matchup is the first of a two-game series between the two programs that have never faced off against each other. BYU will return the favor and travel to DeKalb in 2020.
Northern Illinois at BYU
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 27 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: BYU -7
Three Things to Watch
1. BYU QB Zach Wilson's encore
Everyone around the BYU program knew that the true freshman was going to be the starter against Hawaii, replacing senior Tanner Mangum. The early returns suggest Cougars offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and passing game coordinator Aaron Roderick made the right move as Wilson helped his team an eye-popping 49 points.
Was that point total a byproduct of Hawaii’s bad defense, or did Wilson truly give the spark that BYU's offense was lacking with Mangum? Northern Illinois’ defense is as salty as they come and you have to think with an extra week to prepare, the Huskies are going to be ready to bring the pressure on the youngster. Wilson’s follow-up act alone is worth the intrigue for tuning into this game.
2. What does this game mean to Northern Illinois?
It seems like a silly question, but you have to ask yourself, what does this game against BYU mean to the Huskies? Northern Illinois is already 4-3 with all their losses coming outside of MAC play. The Group of 5 New Year’s Six bowl bid is not a possibility, so the focus is likely on the MAC title, right? BYU’s not a Florida State or an Iowa, but this would still be a significant win for the Huskies if they were able to pull it off.
3. Northern Illinois DE Sutton Smith vs. BYU’s offensive line
With 21 sacks and 42.5 tackles for a loss over the past two seasons (span of 20 games), Smith has clearly established himself as one of the best pass rushers in the country. BYU's offensive line has a tall order in front of it going up against Smith. The group has had its share of lackluster performances this season, but it also has made significant strides under Grimes, who came to the Cougars after serving as LSU's offensive coach from 2014-17. It's a young group up front for BYU, but they've gained a lot of experience this season and it’ll be interesting to see how they fare against Smith.
BYU is a new team offensively with Zach Wilson at quarterback. No longer is BYU lining up two or three tight ends in a given package. This is a group that is going into shotgun and feels more confident about airing it out with Wilson, who has already shown he's much more decisive in the pocket than Mangum. BYU wins this football game because the Northern Illinois secondary will give up big plays to the Cougars. The Huskies will be able to hang around thanks to Sutton Smith's presence along the line of scrimmage. But NIU's offense will struggle to do much against the Cougars' defense while also adjusting to the altitude.
Prediction: BYU 31, Northern Illinois 17
— Written by Mitch Harper, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Harper is BYU Insider for ESPN 960 Sports and Publisher of Cougar Nation, part of the Rivals network. Follow him on Twitter @Mitch_Harper.
(Top photo courtesy of BYU Football Facebook page)