Huskies seek to keep their MAC West Division title hopes alive with a win over the Chippewas
Two of the hottest teams in the MAC — Northern Illinois, winners of six of its last seven games, and Central Michigan, currently on a four-game winning streak with five wins over its last six contests — are set to finish the regular season against one another the Friday after Thanksgiving. At 8-3 overall and 6-1 in conference play, the Huskies still have an outside shot of making it to the MAC Championship Game, needing a win over the Chippewas, plus a Toledo loss. Central Michigan (7-4, 5-2) hopes to end NIU’s championship hopes while jumping the Huskies in the league’s bowl pecking order.
Northern Illinois at Central Michigan
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 24 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Northern Illinois -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Elite pass rushers
No conference has had more productive pass rushers than the Mid-American Conference. In fact, four of the top five national leaders in sacks play in the MAC, including two who will be on the field Friday. Northern Illinois defensive lineman Sutton Smith leads the country with 13 sacks and ranks second nationally with 87 sack yards. Smith, a sophomore, has been consistent all season, getting to the quarterback in eight different games. He had 2.5 last week in the 35-31 win over Western Michigan.
Central Michigan’s Joe Ostman has been just as effective. Despite missing two games with injury, Ostman ranks third among all FBS pass rushers with 11 sacks. The senior had a season-high four sacks against Ball State before missing two weeks of action, and got on the board with a sack last week in the 42-23 victory over Kent State.
Naturally, with such gifted pass rushers on the loose, protecting the quarterback will be key for both offenses. Central Michigan QB Shane Morris (above, right) leads the MAC with 23 touchdown passes and ranks third with 2,661 passing yards. Morris, a graduate transfer from Michigan, struggled with his decision making early in the season and tossed 11 picks through his first seven starts with the Chippewas. However, during the four-game winning streak he is 53-for-91 (58.2 percent) with 894 yards (223.5 per game), 11 TDs and only one interception. Morris has been sacked 15 times, including a surprising eight over the last four weeks.
Redshirt freshman Marcus Childers began the season far down the NIU QB depth chart, but supplanted Daniel Santacaterina as the starter midway through the season. Childers has completed 57.6 percent of his passes for 1,312 yards and 14 touchdowns with three interceptions. He also is a threat to run, having gained 441 yards and a team-leading five touchdowns on the ground. Childers, Santacaterina and Ryan Graham, who won the QB competition in the fall but suffered an elbow injury in the opener against Boston College and hasn’t attempted a pass since, have been sacked a combined 22 times this season.
3. Balance on offense
Both teams are evenly matched on offense. Northern Illinois averaged 395.2 total yards per game and 5.24 yards per play, while Central Michigan has gained 392.5 total yards per contest while averaging 5.53 yards per snap. However, the Huskies have been far more balanced, having produced 191.8 rushing yards and 203.4 passing yards per game. The Chippewas have been far more reliant on the pass, gaining an average of 248.3 yards per game through the air, and 144.2 yards on the ground.
The Huskies lead the MAC in scoring defense (19.9 ppg), total defense (322.7 ypg), yards allowed per play (4.5) and rushing defense (109.8 ypg). NIU ranks third in the nation in sacks (38), fourth in yards per play, ninth against the run, and No. 20 in total defense.
Given its ability to stop opposing rushing attacks, the Huskies' defense could make Central Michigan one-dimensional, and if they can pressure Morris, it’s more likely he will make a mistake. The Chippewas rank second in the league with 29 sacks, which includes 20 during their four-game winning streak and seven last week, so NIU also will be under pressure in the passing game. As a result, the team able to run the football more consistently should have an advantage.
Northern Illinois is still alive in the MAC West race, which could add an additional layer of motivation for the Huskies. NIU also has the nation’s leader in sacks, and one of the toughest defenses in the nation, though Central Michigan also has big-play ability on defense (including 17 interceptions). The Chippewas have a more established quarterback, and a more accomplished passing attack, but Northern Illinois has excelled making opponents one-dimensional, which could neutralize Morris. The Huskies also have done a better job moving the football on the ground. Central Michigan has home-field advantage, but NIU has a more complete and balanced team, and should escape with a close win.
Prediction: Northern Illinois 28, Central Michigan 24
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.