Northern Illinois hosts Toledo on Wednesday night for a key game that could decide which team wins the MAC West this fall. The Huskies enter Week 11 MACtion at 5-0 in league play, while the Rockets sit at 3-2 with three games remaining. With two losses already in MAC games, Toledo needs a victory to stay alive for the conference title. With a two-game edge in the West, Northern Illinois needs wins in two out of its next three contests to clinch a division title.
Toledo is the defending MAC champion, but coach Jason Candle’s team entered November fighting to get bowl eligible. The Rockets started 3-4 with losses to Miami, Fresno State, Eastern Michigan and Buffalo but have rebounded with back-to-back victories over Western Michigan and Ball State. Toledo’s high-powered offense is still potent, but offense is looking for more consistency at quarterback, and the defense is giving up nearly six yards per play (5.97). Following this matchup at Northern Illinois, the Rockets should be heavily favored to beat Kent State and Central Michigan.
Northern Illinois has dominated the MAC West in recent years, winning the division for six consecutive (2010-15) seasons. However, the Huskies have not claimed the West Division for two straight years, finishing 5-7 in 2016 and 8-5 last fall. But coach Rod Carey has the program on the cusp of a return trip to the Detroit. Northern Illinois opened the year with a 1-3 mark after losing to Iowa, Utah and Florida State in non-conference play. However, the Huskies have reeled off five straight wins, including a victory at BYU (7-6) and a home win over Ohio (24-21).
Toledo owns a 31-14 series edge over Northern Illinois. The Rockets have won two in a row against the Huskies. However, Northern Illinois has claimed six out of the last eight in this series.
Toledo at Northern Illinois
Kickoff: Wednesday, Nov. 7 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Northern Illinois -3
TV Channel: ESPN2
Three Things to Watch
1. Toledo’s Quarterbacks
Toledo’s offense leads the MAC by averaging 41.2 points a game and ranks second in the league by recording 6.3 yards per play. After scoring less than 30 points in back-to-back losses to Eastern Michigan and Buffalo, the Rockets posted 51 in a win over Western Michigan and 45 over Ball State last Wednesday.
While Toledo’s offense has been productive, the passing game hasn’t been as consistent as the 2017 unit. The Rockets are only completing 55.9 percent of their throws (down from 63.1 percent in 2017). Additionally, quarterbacks have already tossed 10 interceptions after nine in 14 games last season.
Mitch Guadagni started seven out of the first nine games and has paced the offense with 1,053 yards and 13 touchdowns to just three picks. Guadagni also ranks second on the team with 428 rushing yards and has three rushing scores. However, Guadagni is out due to a shoulder injury on Wednesday night, which means Eli Peters will make his third start of 2018. Peters has passed for 998 yards and 11 touchdowns but has a lower completion percentage than Guadagni (53.7) and has tossed six interceptions.
Peters has a loaded supporting cast at his disposal, but Wednesday night’s game is a huge test for Toledo’s offensive line. The Rockets have allowed 21 sacks and face a Northern Illinois’ defense that has generated 32 through nine games. End Sutton Smith (eight sacks) will be a handful for Toledo’s offensive line on passing downs and also anchors a rush defense that ranks No. 1 in the MAC. Bryant Koback (512) leads the team in rushing yardage, but Candle and coordinator Brian Wright will rotate a couple of backs, including Shakif Seymour and Art Thompkins. The Rockets have one of the nation’s top receiving corps at their disposal, with Diontae Johnson (17.6 ypc) and Cody Thompson combining for 17 touchdown catches.
The setup for this game is pretty simple. It’s a classic matchup of a high-powered offense against a standout defense. Toledo’s offense averages over 40 points a game, while Northern Illinois leads the conference in rush defense, allows just 21.7 points a game and 4.66 yards a play.
Which side will win out? Will Toledo’s high-powered offense get on track early and limit the turnovers that plagued this group in the win over Ball State last week? Or will Northern Illinois control the line of scrimmage and prevent the Rockets from scoring over 30 points?
2. Northern Illinois QB Marcus Childers and Ground Game
Toledo and Northern Illinois are on the opposite end of production on offense. While the Rockets average over 40 points a game, the Huskies average only 19.2 a contest. Carey’s offense generates only 4.2 yards a snap and has only three plays of 40 yards or more.
The strength of Northern Illinois’ offense rests with the ground game. The Huskies rank sixth in the MAC in rushing offense (167.3 ypg) but average 3.8 yards per carry. Sophomore Tre Harbison leads the offense with 665 yards and four scores, with Marcus Jones (375) and quarterback Marcus Childers (270) contributing to the ground game.
Childers isn’t posting huge passing totals each week, but he’s doing just enough for the Huskies to win. The sophomore is connecting on 56.7 percent of his throws for 1,252 yards and nine touchdowns to five picks. Most importantly for Carey’s offense: Childers hasn’t tossed a pick in three consecutive games. Jauan Wesley and D.J. Brown are tied for the team lead with 40 receptions, with Spencer Tears, Dennis Robinson and Cole Tucker rounding out the secondary options.
Will Northern Illinois generate enough on offense on Wednesday night? This group isn’t posting huge totals but has a favorable matchup on the ground to control the line of scrimmage and keep Toledo’s offense on the sideline.
3. Toledo’s Run Defense
As mentioned in the previous section, Northern Illinois’ offense isn’t the most prolific unit in the MAC. But if Toledo is going to knock off the Huskies, Candle’s defense has to step up.
The Rockets are giving up 30.8 points a contest and nearly six yards a play (5.97). Of particular concern for Candle has to be the rush defense. Toledo is giving up 171.2 yards a game on the ground and has surrendered five runs of 40 yards or more in 2018. But on a positive note for Candle, after giving up 229 rushing yards to Eastern Michigan, the Rockets have allowed fewer yards (137 to 125 to 94) on the ground in three consecutive games.
Can Toledo stop the run and force Northern Illinois into third-and-long or obvious passing situations? In addition to stopping the one-two punch of Harbison and Jones on the ground, the Rockets have to keep Childers in the pocket and not allow the sophomore to get outside and make plays with his legs.
This is a tough game to get a read on. Northern Illinois isn’t going to have a huge night on offense, but Carey’s team should be able to establish the run, get just enough out of Childers through the air and force a couple of takeaways on defense. The Huskies have an edge at the line of scrimmage and have been better in the turnover department this season. While Toledo’s high-powered offense is capable of generating big plays, the edge here goes to the team with homefield advantage and a better defense.