Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago is home to the White Sox, but on Wednesday night, the scene shifts to college football, as Northern Illinois hosts Toledo in an intriguing midweek MACtion showdown.
At 3-6, the Huskies are fighting just to get bowl eligible. That’s quite a contrast to the previous years, as it’s no secret in the standard for success is high in DeKalb. Northern Illinois has claimed the last six MAC West titles and hasn’t missed a bowl since 2007. Both of those streaks are in jeopardy, as the winner of the West is likely Western Michigan or Toledo, and the Huskies need to win out just to get bowl eligible. If coach Rod Carey’s team can knock off the Rockets, matchups against Eastern Michigan and Kent State to close out the year provide a favorable path to bowl eligibility.
Toledo enters Wednesday night’s matchup with a different set of goals. Under the direction of first-year coach Jason Candle, the Rockets are 7-2 and suffered the only two losses of the year (Ohio and BYU) by a combined seven points. The Rockets are a game behind Western Michigan in the West Division and need to keep winning to keep the pressure on the Broncos. If Toledo wins its next two games, the Nov. 25 showdown against Western Michigan will decide the MAC West title.
Toledo owns a 29-14 series edge over Northern Illinois. However, the recent trends in this series favor the Huskies. Northern Illinois has won six in a row over the Rockets, including a 32-27 contest last year.
Toledo vs. Northern Illinois (Chicago)
Kickoff: Wednesday, Nov. 9 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Toledo -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The Quarterbacks
The scoreboard operator could be busy on Wednesday night with the firepower on the sidelines and quarterback talent on display. Toledo’s Logan Woodside has passed for 3,042 yards and 34 scores in his first full year as the starter and leads all MAC quarterbacks with 17 completions of 40 yards or more. In addition to his ability to stretch the field, the junior has been efficient (70.9%) and has tossed only five picks on 296 attempts. Woodside has a deep collection of receivers at his disposal, with three players catching at least 35 passes in 2016. Corey Jones (49) leads the team in catches, with Cody Thompson (21.0 ypc) and Jon’Vea Johnson (20.4 ypc) providing big plays, while tight end Michael Roberts (10) leads the team in touchdown catches. Woodside has tossed at least three touchdown passes in every game this year and has passed for at least 300 yards in six contests. Northern Illinois ranks seventh in the MAC in pass efficiency defense, with cornerback Shawun Lurry anchoring the coverage for coordinator Kevin Kane. The Huskies have struggled to generate a consistent pass rush (16 sacks), so Woodside and the Toledo receivers could hit on their share of big plays. Can Northern Illinois limit the damage and prevent 10-yard gains from becoming 30-yard touchdowns? The Huskies are going to have their hands full in the secondary.
For the second consecutive year, Northern Illinois quarterback Drew Hare suffered a season-ending injury. Hare was lost in the second game of the season after throwing for 425 yards and three scores in 2016. The Huskies used Ryan Graham (395 passing yards) for two starts before making the change to Anthony Maddie. The Western Michigan transfer is 3-2 since taking over the starting job and has provided a spark for the offense. Maddie has passed for 1,213 yards and eight scores, while rushing for 558 yards and seven touchdowns. The senior faces a Toledo defense limiting opponents to 22.8 points per game and ranks fifth in the MAC in pass efficiency defense. While the Rockets have allowed their share of yards this season, this unit ranks first in the MAC in third-down defense. Maddie’s dual-threat ability will be a tough matchup for Toledo, especially if he can connect on a couple of deep balls to receiver Kenny Golladay (13.5 ypc).
2. Northern Illinois’ Ground Attack
As mentioned in the previous section, Northern Illinois’ offense has found a spark with Maddie under center. The Huskies rank second in the MAC in rushing offense, recording 312 in a 44-7 win over Buffalo on Oct. 22 and 286 against Bowling Green last Tuesday. While Maddie’s ability to make plays outside of the pocket with his legs is valuable, the ground attack still revolves around running back Joel Bouagnon. The senior has recorded 644 yards and six touchdowns this season and will be spelled by Jordan Huff (6.9 ypc).
Toledo’s defense has been susceptible against ground games this year, surrendering 154.7 yards per contest. The Rockets struggled to contain Ohio (269 yards) and BYU (338) but no other opponent managed 170 yards against this defense. Can Toledo contain the one-two punch of Bouagnon and Maddie on the ground? Or will Northern Illinois find success on the ground, allowing this offense to control the time of possession and keep the explosive Rocket attack on the sidelines?
3. Toledo RB Kareem Hunt
While the matchup of Northern Illinois’ rushing offense against Toledo’s defense will be critical, don’t forget about the other running back in this game. Kareem Hunt leads the way for the Rockets’ ground attack, recording 926 yards and six touchdowns on 184 attempts in 2016. Candle has a deep group of backs to utilize outside of Hunt, as Terry Swanson (507 yards), Art Thompkins (7.7 ypc) and Damion Jones-Moore (201 yards) are proven (and very capable) options. Toledo’s success on the ground starts with a standout offensive line, and this unit has an advantage against a Northern Illinois’ run defense that ranks ninth in the MAC. The Huskies are giving up nearly 200 yards per game on the ground (199.7), with five opponents exceeding 200 yards this season. With the versatility and different variety of weapons in place, stopping Toledo’s offense is no easy task. However, Northern Illinois has to win some of the battles up front and prevent Hunt from gashing the defense for huge plays on the ground.
These two teams have played in some memorable games in recent years, including a 63-60 matchup in 2011. Additionally, four out of the last five contests between the Rockets and Huskies have been decided by seven points or less. Urgency and desperation should be on Northern Illinois sideline as this program must win out to have any shot at a bowl game. Toledo has its own share of urgency storylines as it looks to keep pace with Western Michigan in the MAC West. Expect the Huskies to throw everything at the Rockets to try to pull off the upset. However, Woodside and Hunt prove to be too much, as Toledo snaps a six-game losing streak to Northern Illinois.