Even though Northern Illinois and Western Michigan are both already out of the race in the MAC West Division, their Wednesday night contest is still critically important. Both teams are 3-6 overall (and 2-3 in MAC play), meaning the loser of this game doesn't have any shot of becoming bowl eligible.
It's been a complete 360 for Northern Illinois, as the defending MAC champions have dealt with a rash of injuries and a reversal of fortune in close games. After going 9-5 overall and 6-2 in conference play last season, the Huskies will be hard-pressed just to finish at .500.
Similarly, Western Michigan hasn't been able to carry over any momentum from its 8-5 2021 campaign. The Broncos have lost three of their past four games and are just 1-3 at Waldo Stadium.
WMU leads the head-to-head series with NIU 27-20 and has won the past two meetings. The Broncos also have won three in a row at home against the Huskies.
Northern Illinois at Western Michigan
When Northern Illinois Has the Ball
The Huskies have remained grounded on offense, and at first glance, it has been effective. They are second in the MAC in rushing at 197.3 yards per game, just as they were last year. The problem is that the ground game hasn't been as bountiful. Last year's team averaged more than 240 yards per game with 36 rushing touchdowns (in 14 total games). This season, NIU has 16 touchdowns on the ground through nine games. The Huskies have been more effective in conference play (236.8 rushing ypg) and they'll hope to continue that on Wednesday night.
Harrison Waylee leads the way with 863 yards but he's not alone. Antario Brown has run for 592 yards with a team-high six rushing touchdowns. As a team, NIU is averaging more than 40 rushing attempts per game vs. 28 passing attempts.
One of the reasons for this is injuries at the quarterback position. Four different signal-callers have seen action this season. Last year's starter, Rocky Lombardi, went down early with a leg injury. He missed several games, then returned a couple of weeks ago but hasn't played in either of the team's last two games. Lombardi was replaced by Ethan Hampton, who got hurt after a few games. Justin Lynch then started the next two games, but it was Nevan Cremascoli getting the call last Wednesday against Central Michigan. The true freshman went 13-for-33 for 158 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. He also lost a fumble. It's not clear who the starter will be for this game, but Lombardi has by far the most experience as the starter on last season's MAC championship-winning team.
NIU's quarterback concerns could be exacerbated against a Western Michigan defense that is No. 1 against the run in conference-only games. The Broncos have given up 119.6 rushing yards per game to MAC opponents, although they have surrendered nine touchdowns on the ground in those five contests. Part of the reason for this success is WMU has recorded a total of 63 tackles for a loss this season, an effort that has been led by linebacker Corvin Moment (11) and defensive lineman Marshawn Kneeland (9). The Broncos also have done a good job in the turnover department, including 12 forced fumbles. On the other side, the ground-oriented Huskies have lost just two fumbles, but the quarterbacks have a combined eight interceptions.
When Western Michigan Has the Ball
The Broncos' offensive issues go beyond just the quarterback position. Yes, they also have used four different players at the position this season, but WMU also hasn't been able to run the ball that effectively. The offense ranks 10th in MAC-only games in total yards per game (338.2) and is11th when it comes to scoring (19.8 ppg).
Jack Salopek and Treyson Bourguet, both freshmen, have gotten the bulk of the snaps under center, and it looks like the latter has claimed the starting job for now. Salopek struggled with accuracy (50.8 percent completion rate) and turnovers (10 INTs) when he was on the field, opening the door for Bourguet. The reality is that WMU's passing attack just isn't that explosive (11.9 ypr as a team), although Corey Crooms (43 rec., 620 yds., 5 TDs) is a legitimate weapon.
Not helping either quarterback is a running game that's averaging 138 yards per game in MAC contests, a year after producing more than 220. Sean Tyler is fifth in the conference in rushing yards (622) but he's also the only option following last week's announcement by head coach Tim Lester that La'Darius Jefferson (eighth in the MAC in 2021 with 836 rushing yards) had been suspended indefinitely. This season, Broncos not named Tyler and Jefferson have totaled 258 rushing yards and one touchdown.
Tyler may not find much running room against a Northern Illinois that has done a decent job slowing down MAC opponents. The Huskies are giving up 132.8 rushing yards per game and 3.7 yards per carry in conference matchups. They've been more generous through the air (239.2 ypg, 12 TDs, 4 INTs), but WMU's passing game doesn't really scare anyone. What's interesting is that while NIU ranks in the middle of the conference when it comes to yards allowed (372 per game, sixth), the Huskies have given up 33 points per contest. One of the big reasons for this is that when teams get in the red zone, they score. In MAC games alone, Northern Illinois has given up 18 scores in 20 such attempts, 15 of those being touchdowns.
Both of these teams find themselves in entirely different positions compared to a year ago. Instead of contending for the MAC West title, Northern Illinois and Western Michigan both have to win out simply to go to a bowl game. So that means this is a must-win situation.
The Huskies are still running the ball effectively but their quarterback room has been devastated by injuries and the defense is giving up too many points. The Broncos haven't gotten much from their signal-callers or their running game and their defense hasn't been able to come up with enough stops to offset this lack of offensive production.
NIU's quarterback situation is a bit of a mystery entering this game, which complicates things but that aside, this is still a team that knows its identity. A more effective ground attack combined with WMU's continued struggles on defense should result in a Huskies road win that keeps their bowl hopes alive for at least another week.
Prediction: Northern Illinois 20, Western Michigan 17
*Price as of publication.