On paper, Ohio and Northern Illinois look to be evenly matched. The Bobcats (3-2, 1-0 MAC) and Huskies (3-3, 3-0) have similar records, are undefeated in MAC play and are tied for first place in their respective divisions.
Ohio gets its done with an offense that has reached 30 points or more in every game this year. On the other side, Northern Illinois does it the old-fashioned way: with a strong running game (866 yards, five TDs) that is bolstered by one of the better offensive lines in the country, along with a hard-nosed defense that’s surrendered more than 25 points just twice this season.
The only blemishes on NIU’s record are non-conference losses to Power 5 opponents Iowa, Utah and Florida State, with BYU still on tap. The Huskies have outscored MAC foes 74-55 and control their own destiny as they look to win their first West Division title since 2015. The only conference game Ohio has played so far was last week’s one-point victory over Kent State. The Bobcats' other wins came against former MAC member UMass and FCS opponent Howard. Ohio's two losses are to Virginia and Cincinnati, teams that have combined to go 9-2 thus far.
This game won’t be a pushover for either team. Ohio hasn’t posted a losing conference record since 2008, while Northern Illinois has played in six of the last eight MAC Championship Games.
Ohio at Northern Illinois
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 13 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Northern Illinois -4
Three Things to Watch
1. Bobcats' passing attack vs. Huskies' defense
Bobcats junior quarterback Nathan Rourke may have gotten off to a slow start, but he's picked things up. After completing just two of eight pass attempts for 44 yards in the opener against FCS opponent Howard, Rourke enters this game on a bit of a roll. In his last two games he's averaged close to 280 passing yards with a total of four touchdown passes. In that same span he's completed nearly 80 percent of his throws (40-for-51) although he has tossed an interception in each contest.
If the Bobcats want to keep this offense moving, the offensive line needs to block Huskies junior defensive end Sutton Smith. Smith was limited against Ball State last week due to an injury, but he registered at least one tackle and one sack in every game before that. He has 24 total tackles, 5.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. He especially held his own against the monster-sized offensive linemen from both Iowa and Utah (against whom he had two sacks). The Bobcats need to take Smith out of the equation.
Ohio must also be aware of where Huskies junior linebacker Antonio Jones-Davis is at all times. The Florida native has been flying all over the field this year as evidenced by his 66 total tackles, three sacks and five pass deflections. If the Bobcats don’t account for these two players, it could ruin their day.
2. Huskies' running game vs. Bobcats' defense
The Bobcats have had their issues against the run this season. They’ve surrendered 726 yards on the ground (with seven touchdowns), including a 200-yard performance by Kent State last week. The Huskies have rushed for well over 100 yards as a team in each of their conference games so far: 164 against Central Michigan, 235 against Eastern Michigan and 227 against Ball State. NIU has historically been a run-first team, and this game will be no different.
Sophomore running back Tre Harbison (419 rushing yards and three touchdowns), junior tailback Marcus Jones (249 yards, one touchdown), freshman rusher Jordan Nettles (176 yards) and sophomore quarterback Marcus Childers, who’s quite mobile himself (73 yards and one score), will be licking their chops to get the ball moving on Saturday.
3. The steady improvement of Marcus Childers
While Childers’ mobility is a large of part of his game, his main responsibility is his overall command of the quarterback position. He completed just 43-of-76 passes (53 percent) for 325 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions in the first three games of the season. In the last three games, however, he’s completed 61 percent of his passes (58-of-105) for 479 yards and five touchdowns. He’s averaging nearly 20 completions in those last three starts, but interceptions are still an issue, as he’s thrown three in the two games combined. It will take the occasional quick-strike pass from Childers to balance out this offense if the Huskies are to beat Ohio.
While the Bobcats are accustomed to scoring at least 30 points, the Huskies' defense only allowed that to happen against Iowa. Ohio hasn’t faced a defense as strong as NIU’s this season. And when you factor in Ohio’s struggles against the run, NIU’s home-field advantage in MAC games (the Huskies have won their last six conference home games), and the fact that Northern has won two of its last three home games against the Bobcats, this should be another win for the Huskies. It will be close, but NIU remains unbeaten in the MAC.
Prediction: Northern Illinois 28, Ohio 25
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo courtesy of NIU Athletics)