Toledo is 7-0 and positioned to contend for the Group of 5 New Year’s Six bowl spot, but the Rockets have four challenging games remaining on their schedule, starting with Tuesday night’s showdown against Northern Illinois. The Huskies have set the standard for the rest of the teams in the MAC West with five consecutive division titles. Northern Illinois has claimed three out of the last four conference championships and won at least 11 games in each of the last five seasons.
The Rockets are 4-0 in league play this season, winning each league contest by at least 14 points. Northern Illinois lost at Central Michigan on Oct. 3, but coach Rod Carey’s team has rallied with three victories in league play. Both teams faced Power 5 opponents in the non-conference portion of their schedule, with Toledo knocking off Iowa State and Arkansas, while the Huskies fell just short (17-14) against Boston College and Ohio State (20-13).
Toledo leads the all-time series 29-13 over Northern Illinois. However, the Huskies have won the last five matchups against the Rockets. Toledo’s last victory in this series came in 2009.
Northern Illinois at Toledo
Kickoff: Tuesday, Nov. 3 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Toledo -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Establishing the Run
The Huskies and Rockets are the MAC’s No. 1 and No. 2 teams in rushing offense this season. Northern Illinois leads the way at 217.5 yards per game, with the Rockets a close No. 2 at 213.1 a contest. 226-pound running back Joel Bouagnon is the go-to option for the Huskies and is the MAC’s leading rusher with 863 yards in eight appearances. Bouagnon has plenty of help, starting with quarterback Drew Hare (223 yards) and sophomore running back Jordan Huff (367 yards). The Rockets counter with arguably the deepest backfield in the MAC. Terry Swanson (590 yards) is the leading rusher, but Kareem Hunt (349 yards) is working his way back after missing two games earlier this year due to injury. Both teams have been solid at the point of attack this year, which makes the battle up front even more intriguing with the talent at running back. Toledo is giving up 3.6 yards per carry, but UMass (6.2) and Eastern Michigan (5.5) both had reasonable success in the last two games. Northern Illinois has not allowed more than 157 rushing yards to an opponent in its last three contests and limited Ohio State to 4.4 yards per carry in the 20-13 loss on Sept. 19.
2. Drew Hare vs. Phillip Ely
The MAC has a solid all-around group of quarterbacks in 2015, with most of the spotlight from the conference on Bowling Green’s Matt Johnson through Week 9. However, two other names that shouldn’t be overlooked in the national conversation square off on Tuesday night. Toledo’s Phillip Ely has rebounded from a season-ending injury in 2014 to throw 15 touchdowns and 1,734 yards through the first seven games. The senior has seven interceptions on 246 attempts but three of those came in the Rockets’ 51-35 victory over UMass. While Ely is more of the standard pocket passer, Hare brings mobility and dual-threat presence to the Northern Illinois’ offense. The junior has passed for 1,817 yards and 13 scores in eight games and ranks third on the team with 223 rushing yards. Hare averages 12 carries per game and could be counted upon for that number (or more) on Tuesday night. Even though both defenses have been involved in a couple of blowouts (inviting teams to throw more), the Rockets and Huskies both rank inside of the top three in the MAC in pass efficiency defense. However, this will be a huge test for both defensive backfields. Toledo’s receiving corps is headlined by three players with at least 22 catches, while Northern Illinois boasts one of the top receivers in the MAC this year in North Dakota transfer Kenny Golladay (673 yards, 14.6 ypc).
Three out of the last four matchups in this series were decided by a touchdown or less. One critical stat in Northern Illinois’ five-game winning streak against Toledo is the turnover margin. The Huskies won the turnover battle in three out of the last five games versus the Rockets, with one matchup (2014) ending in an even margin. Additionally, Northern Illinois has forced nine overall turnovers in this span and has lost only four. Toledo is averaging nine penalties a game, while the Huskies are flagged only 5.9 times per contest. If the Huskies can win the turnover battle and limit the penalties, coach Rod Carey’s team will have a good shot to earn win No. 6 in a row against Toledo.
November is one of the best portions of the college football schedule. Midweek MAC games aren’t going to shape the national title race, but as previous years have showed, entertaining and high-scoring games should be expected. Northern Illinois has dominated Toledo in the win column in recent years, but the momentum in this series has shifted to the Rockets’ sideline in 2015. While both teams are solid defensively and limited big plays allowed this season, there’s too much firepower on Tuesday night for this game to be a defensive struggle. Toledo’s balanced attack, timely defense and home-field advantage are enough for the Rockets to move to 8-0 and stay alive for the Group of 5 bowl spot in the New Year’s Six.