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Northern Illinois Huskies vs. Toledo Rockets Preview and Prediction

Logan Woodside, Toledo Rockets Football

Logan Woodside, Toledo Rockets Football

Toledo and Northern Illinois are the MAC’s only remaining unbeaten teams in league play through Week 9, setting the stage for a huge showdown on Thursday night at the Glass Bowl. With just three games remaining in the regular season after this one, Thursday night’s matchup could be a defacto MAC West Division title game, as both teams have a favorable slate remaining. So don’t be surprised if the winner on Thursday night plays in Detroit on Saturday, Dec. 2 for the MAC title.

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Under rising star and second-year coach Jason Candle, Toledo is 7-1 through its first eight games. The Rockets suffered their only loss of 2017 at Miami (52-30) and have won by least 20 points in each of their last three games. Candle is 17-5 in his tenure at Toledo, and the program hasn’t missed a beat since Matt Campbell left for Iowa State. With Candle at the controls, the Rockets have remained one of the nation’s best on offense. Last season, Toledo averaged 38 points a game and finished 19th nationally in scoring offense. This unit is once again lighting up the scoreboard in 2017, as the Rockets are averaging 40.5 points a game (ranked second in the MAC). Quarterback Logan Woodside is the leader and catalyst for this attack, but Toledo’s offense is deep with playmakers and has a standout offensive line.

Northern Illinois set the standard for the rest of the MAC by winning six consecutive West Division titles from 2010-15. However, the Huskies stumbled last season and finished a disappointing 5-7. But coach Rod Carey has this program back on track, as Northern Illinois is off to a 6-2 start. The Huskies’ only losses came against Boston College (23-20) and San Diego State (34-28). This team won in overtime last Thursday against Eastern Michigan and pounded Bowling Green 48-17 on Oct. 21.

Toledo holds a 30-14 all-time series edge against Northern Illinois.

Northern Illinois at Toledo

Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 2 at 6 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPNU

Spread: Toledo -8.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Toledo’s Passing Attack Versus Northern Illinois’ Secondary

This is a strength versus strength battle on Thursday night. Toledo has the MAC’s No. 1 passing offense at 289.5 yards per game, and Northern Illinois will counter with the conference’s top-ranked secondary in pass efficiency defense.

As mentioned previously, the leader for Toledo’s offense is quarterback Logan Woodside. The senior has passed for 2,295 yards and 19 touchdowns through the first eight games and has only tossed two picks on 232 attempts. Additionally, Woodside is completing 62.9 percent of his throws and leads all MAC signal-callers with eight completions of 40 yards or more. Woodside isn’t matching his 2016 pace (4,129 yards and 45 touchdowns), but he’s still having a prolific senior campaign. The senior’s favorite target was Cody Thompson (28 catches for 537 yards and four scores), but he suffered a season-ending leg injury in the win over Eastern Michigan. With Thompson sidelined, Diontae Johnson (36 catches for 693 yards and eight scores), Jon’Vea Johnson (23 catches), Danzel McKinley-Lewis (14) have assumed a bigger role in the offense.

Through eight games, the Northern Illinois has allowed only eight passing scores and opponents are managing only a 53.1 completion percentage against this defense. As if a standout secondary wasn’t tough enough for opposing quarterbacks, the Huskies own the league’s best pass rush with 25 sacks. Simply, quarterbacks don’t have a lot of time to throw against this defense. And when they do, this secondary excels at taking the ball away (13 picks) and doesn’t allow many big plays (just one of 50 yards or more). Cornerback Shawun Lurry is the headliner for Carey, picking off two passes and breaking up three passes so far this year. Additionally, safety Mykelti Williams (a former Notre Dame defensive back) is third on the team with 47 stops.

Can Toledo attack downfield against a standout Northern Illinois’ secondary? The battle between Woodside and the Huskies’ defensive backs (including Lurry) will be a must-see matchup on Thursday night.

2. Northern Illinois’ Front Seven Against Toledo’s Rushing Attack

The success of Northern Illinois’ defense starts up front. The Huskies are led by a strong front seven, which includes end Sutton Smith – the MAC’s likely defensive player of the year in 2017. Smith has wreaked havoc all year against opposing fronts, recording 20 tackles for a loss, 9.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. In addition to Smith, linebacker Bobby Jones has 70 stops (11 for a loss) and four sacks, and tackle Ben Leroy has chipped in 3.5 tackles for a loss. Smith’s presence and speed off the edge has helped to contribute to a defense that leads the MAC with 25 sacks and 69 tackles for a loss.

While Northern Illinois’ front seven has been relentless in generating pressure, that’s not the only strength for this unit. The Huskies lead the MAC in rush defense by holding opponents to just 106.1 yards per game. Additionally, Carey’s defense is limiting rushers to only 2.7 yards per carry and surrendered only four scores on the ground all year. In the loss to San Diego State, running back Rashaad Penny was limited to 107 yards on 25 carries – nearly 45 yards less than his weekly average.

If there’s a group that’s up to testing the Northern Illinois’ front seven, Toledo’s offensive line would be the unit to watch. The Rockets have allowed only 12 sacks through eight games and running backs are averaging 5.3 yards per rush. Terry Swanson had big shoes to fill in replacing Kareem Hunt this year and has rushed for 728 yards and eight scores through seven games. He’s not the only cog in the backfield for Candle’s offense, as Shakif Seymour (467 yards) and Art Thompkins (437 yards) will both play a key role on Thursday night.

Can Northern Illinois’ front seven stuff the run and get pressure on Woodside? Or will the Rockets provide adequate protection for Woodside to throw downfield and clear the way up front for Swanson to hit 100 yards?

3. Northern Illinois’ Offense

With a standout defense in place, Northern Illinois hasn’t needed a dynamic offense to win most of its games this season. The Huskies have scored more than 30 points only twice (Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green) and needed just 38 combined points to beat Kent State and Buffalo.

Carey has used three different starting quarterbacks so far this season, with redshirt freshman Marcus Childers settling into the starting role. Childers has passed for 872 yards and nine touchdowns through seven games and is also a threat on the ground. He’s accumulated 329 yards and three scores on 91 carries this year. The bulk of Childers’ playing time has taken place over the last four games, but he’s coming off arguably his best performance of the year. In an overtime win over Eastern Michigan, Childers rushed for 54 yards and a touchdown and threw for 278 yards and two scores. When Childers’ throws, he’s got a trio of targets that have at least 29 catches this year. Christian Blake (29 for 335), Spencer Tears (29) and D.J. Brown (32) will team with tight end Shane Wimann and fellow receiver Chad Beebe to round out the key targets in the passing game.

Northern Illinois prefers to establish the run (355 rush attempts to 262 pass attempts) this season, and Carey has plenty of options at his disposal. Jordan Huff (450 yards) is the leading rusher but has missed the last two games due to injury. After some early belief Huff would return to the lineup, Carey indicated on Wednesday he would not be available to play on Thursday night. With Huff out, Marcus Jones (236 yards) and Tommy Mister (167 yards) will handle the carries at running back. Additionally, Toledo’s defense can expect to see 15-20 carries from Childers.

With an explosive offense in place, Toledo doesn’t need an elite defense to win the MAC this season. However, after giving up 51 to Tulsa and 52 to Miami, the Rockets have allowed only 63 points over their last four games. In league-only matchups, Toledo ranks second among MAC teams by limiting opponents to 15.8 points a game. The Rockets are fourth in the conference against the run but most of the damage was done prior to league play. Candle’s defense also ranks third in the MAC in pass efficiency defense. However, this unit has some areas of concern. Toledo is last in the MAC in red zone defense, has generated only 10 sacks and forced just 10 turnovers.

Stopping Toledo’s offense has to involve both sides of the ball for Carey. The Huskies need their offense to establish the run, stay in third-and-short situations and chew up large chunks of the clock. The Rockets need to keep Northern Illinois behind the chains and stuff the run.

Final Analysis

A close one should be expected. After all, five out of the last six meetings in this series were decided by a touchdown or less. Northern Illinois has taken a significant step forward since last season, with a solid rushing attack and defense leading the way. Quarterback Marcus Childers is also improving with every snap, and his dual-threat ability will be a tough matchup for Toledo. However, even though the Huskies are going to present some problems for the Rockets, Candle’s team is tough to beat at home. Look for Woodside to do just enough through the air, while the defense makes a couple of key stops in the fourth quarter to seal it and move Toledo one step closer to Detroit for the first time since 2004.

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Prediction: Toledo 34, Northern Illinois 27