Eastern Michigan looks to continue its turnaround under coach Chris Creighton, while Northern Illinois hopes to finish the year on a high note when these two teams meet on Wednesday night in Ypsilanti, Mich. There’s some role reversal involved in this matchup, as this game usually features the Huskies in contention for the MAC title and the Eagles looking to pull off an upset. Instead, the Eagles are almost assured of a bowl bid this December, while Northern Illinois is 3-7 and looking to finish the year on a high note.
Eastern Michigan is one of the nation’s toughest coaching jobs, but Creighton has transformed this program into a bowl team in just three years. After a 3-21 record from 2014-15, the Eagles have already doubled that win total (six) in 2016 and are poised for their first bowl trip since 1987. Additionally, with a win on Wednesday night, Eastern Michigan will clinch the program’s first winning mark since 1995. Just how hard is it to win in Ypsilanti? The program has only eight winning records since 1975 and just one since 1990. Both sides of the ball have played a key role in the improvement this year, as the offense averages 31.2 points per game (up from 25.4 in 2015), while the defense has showed marked improvement under new coordinator Neal Neathery.
After earning six consecutive trips to Detroit for the MAC title game, Northern Illinois is poised for its first losing season since 2010. With a potential shortage of teams with winning records for bowl games, a 5-7 Northern Illinois’ team would have an outside shot at reaching the postseason. However, the Huskies are down to their No. 3 quarterback after Anthony Maddie was lost for the year, and trips to Eastern Michigan and Kent State to close out the 2016 campaign won’t be easy.
Northern Illinois holds a 30-14-2 series edge over Eastern Michigan. Additionally, the Huskies have won eight in a row against the Eagles. Eastern Michigan’s last win in this series took place in 2007.
Northern Illinois at Eastern Michigan
Kickoff: Wednesday, Nov. 16 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPNU
Spread: Northern Illinois -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Eastern Michigan’s Run Defense Against NIU’s Ground Game
As mentioned above, the hire of Neathery has helped Eastern Michigan’s defense take a big step forward. The Eagles ranked last in the MAC in scoring, rush and total defense last season and were near the bottom of the nation in all three of those categories. While this unit is far from a shutdown group, the stat sheet looks a lot better in 2016. Eastern Michigan is giving up 5.7 yards per play (down from 7.02 in 2015), holds opponents to 31.2 points per contest, ranks third in the MAC against the run and has forced 21 turnovers. In addition to Creighton’s hire of Neathery, the return of defensive lineman Pat O’Connor (missed 2015 due to injury) has been a huge boost in the trenches.
The unquestioned strength of Northern Illinois’ offense is its ground game. The Huskies rank second in the MAC in rushing yards per game (233.8), with running back Joel Bouagnon leading the way. The senior has rushed for 728 yards, but he will have plenty of support from quarterback Ryan Graham and backup Jordan Huff. Graham is making his second start after Maddie was lost for the year. The sophomore isn’t as dynamic of a runner as Maddie, but he’s certainly capable after rushing for 97 yards last week. How much room will Bouganon and Graham find to run against this defense? The Eagles limit opponents to 3.95 yards per carry and no opponent has eclipsed more than 230 rushing yards in a game this year.
2. Northern Illinois QB Ryan Graham
Bad luck and injuries have hit Northern Illinois’ quarterback depth chart hard this season. After missing the final five games of 2015 due to an Achilles tear, Drew Hare made a full recovery and rejoined the lineup as one of the MAC’s top returning quarterbacks for 2016. However, Hare suffered another season-ending injury, this time in Week 2 against USF. Ryan Graham started the next two games but posted uneven performances in losses to San Diego State and Western Illinois. Anthony Maddie shared time with Graham against Western Illinois and claimed the starting job for the next five games. The Western Michigan transfer gave the offense a spark thanks to his mobility (558 yards) and was steady through the air (1,213 yards and eight scores). However, Maddie suffered a season-ending injury against Bowling Green, leaving Graham and redshirt freshman Daniel Santacaterina as the next options at the position. Graham has seven career starts as Northern Illinois’ No. 1 quarterback but has struggled with his accuracy (53.9 in 2015 and 55.6 in 2016). The sophomore showed good mobility in last week’s loss to Toledo (97 yards) and will be counted upon for a similar role on Wednesday night. When Graham throws, he’s got one of the MAC’s best receivers in Kenny Golladay (79 catches) at his disposal.
Last week’s performance against Toledo was arguably the best outing Graham has posted in his career. Can he build off that momentum against Eastern Michigan? The Eagles are eight in the MAC in pass efficiency defense and have surrendered 11 throws of more than 40 yards. There should be plenty of opportunities for Graham to test the Eastern Michigan secondary on Wednesday night.
3. Eastern Michigan’s Passing Attack
Brogan Roback missed the first two games of the year due to a suspension and worked behind Todd Porter for the next three contests. Roback regained the starting job against Toledo on Oct. 8 and has pieced together a solid season since returning to action. The junior has passed for 1,855 yards and 13 scores, including a huge 468-yard effort in last week’s win over Ball State. Roback has a deep collection of receivers at his disposal, including Sergio Bailey II (46 catches), tight end Nigel Kilby (31 grabs) and promising freshman Dieuly Aristilde (13 catches over the last two games).
Northern Illinois has struggled at times to stop the pass, ranking ninth in the MAC in pass efficiency defense. Cornerback Shawun Lurry is one of the best in the conference, but this unit has surrendered 20 plays of 30 yards or more. That’s a huge concern for the Huskies, as Roback and his receiving corps are capable of spreading out the defense through the air for big plays. The Eagles average only 3.7 yards per rush in MAC contests this year, so if Creighton’s team is going to get the win on Wednesday night, it’s going to hinge on Roback and an offensive line that’s allowed only 11 sacks through 10 contests.
This is a tough game to get a read on. As mentioned in the intro, it’s a reversal of roles for this series. Usually, the Huskies are preparing for another trip to Detroit, while the Eagles are fighting to avoid the cellar in the MAC West. Eastern Michigan’s passing game should be able to move the ball, but Creighton’s team needs a little more from Ian Eriksen on the ground. When Northern Illinois has the ball, look for Bouagnon to approach 20-25 carries and plenty of downfield shots to Golladay. Not much separates these two teams. Look for a close game that goes down to the wire. Roback is the difference in the game, as the Eagles win this one in the fourth quarter and clinch the program's first winning season since 1995.