Northern Illinois and Western Michigan close out their regular season schedule with Tuesday night MACtion. The Huskies have already clinched a trip to the MAC Championship Game, but coach Rod Carey’s team is looking to get back on track after a loss to Miami (Ohio) in Week 12. The situation is a little different on the Western Michigan sideline. Coach Tim Lester’s team has lost three in a row and needs a victory to improve their standing for a bowl trip.
Former Western Michigan quarterback Tim Lester is in his second year at his alma mater and is hoping to avoid the same fate as last season. The Broncos finished 2017 with a 6-6 record but did not make a bowl appearance. Western Michigan opened 0-2 after losses to Syracuse and Michigan but won six consecutive games. However, a season-injury to quarterback Jon Wassink was a significant setback for this program, and Lester's team has dropped three straight, including a 42-41 overtime defeat at Ball State last Tuesday. If Western Michigan loses this game against Northern Illinois, Lester’s team could be left out of the postseason once again.
After earning six consecutive trips to the MAC title game from 2010-15, Northern Illinois went two years without a West Division title. However, the Huskies are back atop the West and have already booked a trip to Detroit on Nov. 30 to take on the East Division champion. NIU started 1-3 with losses to Iowa, Utah and Florida State but reeled off six victories over their next seven games. Carey’s team has struggled on offense but possesses the MAC’s top defense.
Western Michigan holds a 24-19 series edge over Northern Illinois. However, the Huskies have won eight out of the last nine against the Broncos. Western Michigan won the last meeting between these two teams (2016) in Kalamazoo.
Northern Illinois at Western Michigan
Kickoff: Tuesday, Nov. 20 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPNU
Spread: Northern Illinois -6
Three Things to Watch
1. Changes to Western Michigan’s Defense?
Following last Tuesday’s loss to Ball State, Western Michigan coach Tim Lester dismissed co-defensive coordinator Tim Daoust. Lou Esposito shared the co-defensive coordinator title with Daoust and will handle the play-calling duties for Tuesday night’s game. Esposito was previously a head coach at Saint Joseph’s (2005-09) and at Davenport (2016). However, this will be his first opportunity to work as the primary defensive coordinator at the FBS level.
Needless to say, Esposito will have a busy week to game plan and prepare Western Michigan’s defense on Tuesday night. The Broncos are giving up 6.1 yards a play, rank 10th in the MAC in points allowed a contest and last in pass efficiency defense. Additionally, Western Michigan ranks last in the MAC in red zone defense and has allowed at least 35 points in four out of its last five contests.
What tweaks can Esposito implement by Tuesday night to get this unit performing at a higher level? Even though Western Michigan’s defense could show improvement on the stat sheet this week, it might be tough to read too much into the final stats. That’s because...
2. Can Northern Illinois’ Offense Get on Track?
Northern Illinois can be effective on offense, but this unit isn’t exactly lighting up the stat sheet this year. The Huskies have scored only 179 points in MAC play and average just 19.8 points a contest overall in 2018. Additionally, Rod Carey’s offense is averaging 4.5 yards a play, which ranks 11th in the MAC. Northern Illinois has generated just four plays of 40 yards or more and one completion of 40 or more yards.
A quick look at the stat sheet shows what Northern Illinois wants to do on offense and the challenge for Western Michigan on Tuesday night. The Huskies rank second in the MAC by averaging 43.3 rushing attempts a contest and check in fifth in terms of per-game production (183.1 ypg). Tre Harbison has recorded three consecutive 100-yard efforts and is quietly closing in on 1,000 (907) this season. Harbison will be spelled at running back by Marcus Jones (523 yards) and Jordan Nettles (196). Additionally, quarterback Marcus Childers has accounted for 385 yards and five scores this season and has recorded double-digit carries in nine of Northern Illinois’ 11 contests. The strength of the Western Michigan defense is its front seven, helping to anchor a unit that limits teams to 174.4 yards a game on the ground (fourth in the MAC).
While Western Michigan’s rush defense has been acceptable in most of the contests this year, the same can’t be said about the secondary. The Broncos are last in the MAC in pass efficiency defense and have surrendered 25 passing scores through 11 contests. However, it’s a weakness versus weakness matchup when Northern Illinois has to throw on Tuesday night. Childers is completing 56.4 percent of his throws but is averaging only 4.9 yards a attempt. The sophomore has passed for 1,540 yards and 10 touchdowns to seven picks this year.
Northern Illinois has been held under 10 points in two out of its last four games. Will the change in coordinator impact Western Michigan’s defense? Or can Childers and the ground game build a little confidence with a big performance on Tuesday night?
3. Western Michigan’s Offense Against Northern Illinois’ Defense
The loss of quarterback Jon Wassink to a season-ending injury has played a huge role in Western Michigan’s three-game slide. And with Wassink out, true freshman Kaleb Eleby has been pressed into a starting role. Eleby has completed 69.7 percent of his passes this year for 632 yards and four touchdowns to two picks. The freshman isn’t making a ton of mistakes but has yet to top 200 passing yards in each of his last two contests. When Eleby throws, freshman Jayden Reed (50 catches), D’Wayne Eskridge (30) and Giovanni Ricci (32) are his favorite weapons.
In order for Western Michigan to pull off the upset, Eleby has to deliver his best performance of the 2018 season. The Broncos want to run the ball with their deep stable of backs, but running room is likely to be limited. LeVante Bellamy (1,120 yards) and Jamauri Bogan (639) are a productive and standout duo for Lester to lean on at running back, but Northern Illinois is holding opponents to just 20.3 points a game and 4.6 yards a play. Additionally, the Huskies lead the MAC in rush defense, rank fourth in pass efficiency defense and have generated 40 sacks through 11 contests. End Sutton Smith (nine sacks) is one of the top Group of 5 players and will test a Broncos’ offensive front that has allowed only 11 sacks this season.
Can Eleby hit on enough throws to keep Northern Illinois’ defense from keying too much on the run? The Huskies have held four of their last five opponents under 100 rushing yards. The Broncos need Eleby to be efficient and deliver a mistake-free performance, while connecting on a few throws to loosen up the defense. If Western Michigan is in third-and-long all night, Lester’s team won’t have much of a shot at the victory.
Considering Western Michigan could use a victory to improve its bowl standing, Lester’s team is catching the MAC West’s top team at the right time. Northern Illinois is coming off a sluggish performance on offense against Miami (Ohio) and already has the MAC West locked up. The formula for a Western Michigan victory has to rest with establishing the run and winning the battle on the line of scrimmage on defense to slow the Huskies' ground game. The Broncos should have plenty of motivation for this one, but Northern Illinois should find a way to get a close win. Look for Carey’s team to get the ground game going, while Smith and the defense create a couple of turnovers to seal the victory.