Northern Illinois hosts Western Michigan on Tuesday night in a crucial game for the battle to win the MAC’s West Division. With a win over the Huskies, the Broncos would clinch the division title and earn a trip to Detroit to play Miami (Ohio) in the conference title game on Dec. 7. Last week’s loss to Eastern Michigan ensured Northern Illinois would have a losing record in coach Thomas Hammock’s first season. However, the Huskies can still end 2019 on a high note by beating the Broncos.
Western Michigan started its season with a 3-3 mark over the first six games but has won four out of its last five matchups. The Broncos enter Tuesday night’s contest riding a three-game winning streak in MAC play. Additionally, the only defeats in conference action came by seven points to both Toledo and Eastern Michigan. Coach Tim Lester’s squad leads the conference in scoring (36 points a game), but the defense has showed improvement under coordinator Lou Esposito and is a key factor for why the Broncos are 60 minutes from their first trip to the MAC Championship Game since 2016. If Western Michigan stumbles on Tuesday night, Central Michigan would have a chance to clinch the division against Toledo on Friday.
Northern Illinois won the MAC West last season, but is only 4-7 going into Tuesday night’s game. The Huskies faced a brutal non-conference slate – at Utah, at Nebraska, and at Vanderbilt – and faced road trips to Miami (Ohio), Central Michigan and Toledo in league play. If Northern Illinois can play spoiler and beat Western Michigan on Tuesday, first-year coach Thomas Hammock would at least end the 2019 season with a .500 mark (4-4) in MAC play.
Western Michigan holds a 25-19 series edge over Northern Illinois. The Broncos have won two out of the last three matchups versus the Huskies.
Western Michigan at Northern Illinois
Kickoff: Tuesday, Nov. 26 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Western Michigan -7
When Western Michigan Has the Ball
Led by a balanced attack, Western Michigan’s offense leads the MAC in scoring (36.0 ppg) and averages 6.6 yards per snap. The Broncos have eclipsed at least 30 points in five out of the team’s seven MAC matchups and only one team (Michigan State) managed to hold this offense under 20 points in 2019.
Running back LeVante Bellamy had his streak of 100-yard games stopped at four in the Nov. 12 win at Ohio. However, Bellamy is still having a strong 2019 campaign, as the senior has rushed for 1,284 yards and 21 touchdowns over 227 attempts. Bellamy also ranks second among MAC running backs in most rushing yards a game (116.7) and leads the conference in runs of 40 yards or more (six). Freshman Sean Tyler (380 yards) and senior Davon Tucker (324) are capable options when Bellamy needs a rest. However, with the MAC West title on the line, Lester will need his senior back to deliver another huge performance. Northern Illinois has been hit hard by injuries at linebacker, but the line still boasts standout Jack Heflin. Despite his presence, the Huskies are giving up 186.6 rushing yards in MAC games this season. Central Michigan gashed this team for 327 rushing yards on Nov. 2, Toledo ran for 208 on Nov. 13 and Eastern Michigan posted 193 last week. Bellamy should be able to find running room against this unit.
In addition to Bellamy’s production, a healthy season out of quarterback Jon Wassink is a big reason why Western Michigan is on the brink of a West Division title. Wassink suffered a season-ending injury prior to November in each of the last two years but hasn’t missed a game in 2019. The senior has passed for 2,719 yards and 19 touchdowns to just seven picks and has also chipped in 267 yards and three scores on the ground. The receiving corps continues to develop, as Skyy Moore (38 catches), Keith Mixon (45), DaShon Bussell (22) and tight end Giovanni Ricci have emerged as the top targets.
Northern Illinois’ struggles versus the run aren’t the only issue plaguing this group going into Tuesday night’s game. The Huskies have allowed six of their seven MAC opponents to score at least 27 points and rank eighth in the MAC in pass efficiency defense. This unit doesn’t get much pressure (12 sacks) on opposing quarterbacks and has generated only 11 takeaways in 2019.
When Northern Illinois Has the Ball
Considering the firepower on Western Michigan’s offense, Hammock’s group has to find a spark after scoring only 17 points against Eastern Michigan last week. Offense was a problem for Northern Illinois last season and has made some small gains under the new staff. However, the Huskies still enter Tuesday night’s game averaging only 23.4 points a game and just 5.3 yards a snap.
Starting quarterback Ross Bowers did not play in last week’s game against Eastern Michigan due to a concussion, and his status for Tuesday night’s matchup is uncertain. Similar to last week, Bowers is listed as a co-starter with backup Marcus Childers on the depth chart. Bowers – a transfer from California – has passed for 2,130 yards and seven touchdowns to eight interceptions in his senior campaign for the Huskies. Childers has 25 career starts under his belt and guided Northern Illinois to the MAC title last season. The junior is a better runner than Bowers, ranking second on the team with 312 yards and five rushing scores. Childers has connected on 42 of 71 throws for 388 yards and five touchdowns to three picks this fall. Receiver Cole Tucker (38 catches) and tight ends Daniel Crawford (35) and Mitchell Brinkman (33) are the top targets for Childers in the passing game.
The strength of Northern Illinois’ offense rests with a ground attack that is led by Tre Harbison. He surpassed the 1,000-yard mark by recording 112 rushing yards versus Eastern Michigan last week and has posted at least 100 yards in three out of his last four contests. Considering Northern Illinois struggled to get its passing game on track (12 of 26 for 99 yards) last week, Harbison is likely to see plenty of attention from Western Michigan’s defense on Tuesday night. The Broncos are giving up 189.2 rushing yards a game and have surrendered at least 200 yards in back-to-back contests. However, with a struggling NIU passing game up next, Western Michigan is likely to devote a little extra attention to the ground attack.
Lester’s decision to promote Esposito to defensive coordinator at the end of the 2018 season has paid dividends for the Broncos. After giving up 34.5 points a game last fall, Western Michigan has cut that total to 27. This unit has also cut its per-play average allowed from 6.2 to 5.96 this season. The Broncos have excelled at getting to the quarterback (32 sacks), have forced 18 turnovers, and rank fourth in the MAC in pass efficiency defense. However, Esposito’s group has been a little susceptible to big plays (13 of 40 yards or more) and have struggled to get off the field at times (eighth in the MAC in third-down defense).
Western Michigan hasn’t won in DeKalb since 2007, but there’s extra motivation for this team on Tuesday night. The Broncos are just 60 minutes away from the West Division title and a trip to Detroit. On paper, the matchups favor Lester’s squad in a big way. Northern Illinois has had trouble with its passing attack on offense, and the defense has struggled to stop the run in recent weeks. The Huskies should be able to generate a push on Western Michigan’s run defense, but they will need to dictate the pace of the game to have a shot at the victory in the fourth quarter. If the Broncos jump out to an early lead with Wassink and Bellamy having big-time performances, Northern Illinois doesn’t have the firepower to keep pace on offense. The Huskies will battle in their home and season finale. However, Western Michigan has too much firepower on offense and pulls away in the fourth quarter to secure the MAC West Division title.