Northern Illinois hosts Western Michigan on Tuesday night to conclude midweek MACtion in November. The midweek portion of the MAC slate has been good to the Huskies. Coach Thomas Hammock's team beat Buffalo last week to clinch the MAC West title. While there's nothing to play for in terms of conference positioning for NIU, Tuesday night's game is a chance for the Huskies (8-3, 6-1) to send a small class of key seniors out on a high note. The stakes are also high for Western Michigan. At 6-5 (3-4 in conference), the Broncos are probably safe for a bowl trip, but a win over Northern Illinois would add more security for a team on the bubble.
Northern Illinois started its season with a surprise upset over Georgia Tech (22-21) and proceeded to win the West thanks to six MAC victories by one score. Hammock returned to his alma mater prior to the 2019 season and finished 5-7 in his debut. However, a youth movement, along with the unusual '20 campaign, dropped the Huskies to an 0-6 mark. Last year's frustration paid off in a big way for the program, as Northern Illinois is headed back to the MAC title game for the first time since '18.
The MAC West title is out of reach for Western Michigan, but as mentioned above, a win on Tuesday night would help coach Tim Lester's team in its quest to get back to the postseason. The Broncos have won at least six games in each of Lester's four full years at the helm but missed out on a bowl in his first season (2017). A win against Northern Illinois would also stop a late slide by this program. Lester's team has dropped three out of its last four games, including a 22-21 defeat to Eastern Michigan last Tuesday.
Western Michigan holds a 26-20 series edge over Northern Illinois. The Broncos won last year's meeting 30-27, and this program has claimed two out of the last three versus the Huskies. The last four matchups have been decided by seven points or fewer.
Western Michigan at Northern Illinois
Kickoff: Tuesday, Nov. 23 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Western Michigan -4
When Western Michigan Has the Ball
Scoring points hasn't been a problem for Western Michigan this season. In conference-only matchups, the Broncos rank fourth in the MAC by averaging 6.4 yards per play and recording 31.3 points a contest. Balance has been a strength for Lester's group, averaging 193.9 rushing yards a game to 254.4 through the air. However, a couple of areas of concern have prevented this unit from taking its play to the next level. Western Michigan ranks near the bottom of the MAC in touchdown percentage in the red zone and has a minus-nine turnover margin. The offense could also use a few more big plays (just eight of 40-plus yards).
Quarterback Kaleb Eleby ranks as one of the top signal-callers in the MAC, throwing for 2,778 yards and 16 touchdowns, and is near the top of the conference in yards per attempt (8.6). Eleby may not have one of his key targets for Tuesday night's game, as Corey Crooms left last week's game due to injury. However, there's no shortage of firepower on the outside, as Skyy Moore paces the team with 80 receptions for 1,051 yards, and Jaylen Hall (16.4 yards per catch) is a big play waiting to happen. Eleby and the Western Michigan receivers should find plenty of room to operate, as even though Northern Illinois ranks fifth in the MAC in pass efficiency defense, three conference opponents reached 300-plus yards through the air. Also, the Huskies struggle to get pressure (12 sacks), which should help the Broncos protect Eleby for downfield opportunities.
Although Eleby and WMU's receivers have a favorable matchup, Lester's offense might lean on the run to win this game. Stopping the run has been a challenge for Northern Illinois this season, as Hammock's defense ranks 11th in the MAC against the run. The Huskies are surrendering 5.7 yards per carry, and the last three opponents have recorded at least 222 yards. Sean Tyler paces the offense with 889 yards, but La'Darius Jefferson (766 yards) and Jaxson Kincaide (332) will be involved.
The stat sheet is not kind to Northern Illinois' defense. This group enters Tuesday night's game giving up 32.7 points a game and 6.5 per snap, while also surrendering too many big plays. However, the Huskies have found a way to get timely stops, ranking second in the MAC (conference-only games) in third-down defense and fifth in red-zone stops. Considering what's transpired this year for NIU's defense, along with the firepower on the other sideline, bend-but-don't-break seems likely to continue for this unit on Tuesday night.
When Northern Illinois Has the Ball
Despite injuries taking a toll on a couple of NIU's top playmakers, this group has been prolific in 2021. The Huskies average 31.6 points a contest and just over six yards a snap (6.01). Both of those totals are a significant increase from '20 when the program averaged just 24.8 points a game and 4.99 a play. The arrival of quarterback Rocky Lombardi from Michigan State is a big reason for the jump in production, but the Huskies have also shown progress along the offensive line to help lift the entire offense.
Lombardi was a steady 17-of-27 for 197 yards in last week's win over Buffalo, bringing his season totals to 2,314 passing yards and 13 touchdowns. In addition to his leadership as a veteran signal-caller, Lombardi has been productive through the air and another cog for NIU's ground game (389 rushing yards and five scores). With the championship game up next week, the coaching staff would probably like to limit Lombardi's rushes, but Western Michigan ranks ninth in the MAC in pass efficiency defense, giving him plenty of opportunities through the air.
Tyrice Richie is among the MAC's top receivers, but he's missed the last two contests due to injury and is not listed on the depth chart for Tuesday night's game. With Richie sidelined, Trayvon Rudolph (44 catches), Cole Tucker (33), and Messiah Travis (11) headline the go-to weapons on the outside. Lombardi's chances of targeting this trio of playmakers will hinge on how well the front five can protect against a Western Michigan defense that leads the MAC in sacks (35).
Although Lombardi's arrival has been crucial for the Northern Illinois offense, the ground game is where the success of this unit starts. Five players have at least 50 rushing attempts for the Huskies this year, with Jay Ducker (788 yards) and Clint Ratkovich (327) expected to see the bulk of the workload on Tuesday night. Harrison Waylee (574 yards) was the team's No. 1 back at the start of the year but has been out since October due to injury. Western Michigan has been one of the MAC's toughest teams against the run, but Eastern Michigan posted 255 on the ground in last week's victory. Will the Huskies find room on the ground or will Ducker, Ratkovich, and Antario Brown struggle to get on track?
Western Michigan's defense has its strengths, but this unit has been vulnerable in MAC contests (33.0 ppg allowed). However, will the Huskies choose to rest any players considering there's nothing on the line on Tuesday night? If so, that makes this battle a little easier for the Broncos' defense.
The motivation for both programs is clear going into Tuesday night's matchup. Northern Illinois doesn't have much to play for, but there's still incentive to finish the regular season on a high note, get revenge after last year's loss to Western Michigan, and close out an undefeated record at home in MAC games for 2021. Considering the stakes next week in Detroit, it wouldn't be a total surprise if the Huskies rest some players or substitute a little more. Barring several upsets from other teams in Week 13, the Broncos should be safe for a bowl. However, Lester's team should take nothing for granted, and there's an opportunity to finish out the regular season on a high note after a recent slide. Western Michigan is favored here, but Northern Illinois keeps finding ways to win close games. Even with nothing to play for, the Huskies should find plenty of motivation to prevent the Broncos from winning in DeKalb.
Prediction: Northern Illinois 31, Western Michigan 30
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