Northern Illinois is on the verge of winning its sixth consecutive MAC West title, but the Huskies still have work to do, starting with Wednesday night’s showdown against Western Michigan. Northern Illinois, Western Michigan and Toledo enter Week 12 action tied atop the West Division at 5-1 in league play. The Rockets play at Bowling Green on Tuesday night, while Central Michigan still has faint MAC West title hopes at 4-2 in league play.
Northern Illinois enters this matchup riding a five-game winning streak, which included a 32-27 victory at Toledo on Nov. 3. The Huskies survived a late rally by Buffalo last week to win 41-30. Injuries have hit coach Rod Carey’s team hard since November, as starting quarterback Drew Hare suffered a torn Achilles in the win over Toledo. In addition to Hare’s season-ending injury, receiver Tommylee Lewis suffered an ankle injury against the Rockets and missed last week’s game against Buffalo. He’s questionable to play against Western Michigan on Wednesday night.
Western Michigan’s overall record is just 6-4 entering Week 12, but coach P.J. Fleck’s team has faced a challenging schedule. The Broncos played Michigan State and Ohio State – two of the nation’s best teams – in the non-conference portion of their schedule, along with a road trip to Georgia Southern (one of the top teams in the Sun Belt). Western Michigan also played Bowling Green – the MAC East champion this season – and still has road tests remaining at Northern Illinois and Toledo. The Broncos started 1-3 but won five in a row before last week’s loss at Bowling Green.
Western Michigan owns a 23-17 lead in the all-time series against Northern Illinois. However, the Huskies have won the last six matchups against the Broncos.
Western Michigan at Northern Illinois
Kickoff: Wednesday, Nov. 17 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Northern Illinois -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Northern Illinois QB Ryan Graham
Drew Hare’s season-ending Achilles injury was a huge blow to Northern Illinois’ offense. In nine games, Hare threw for 1,962 yards and 14 touchdowns and added 252 yards and a score on the ground. Graham was pressed into action after Hare’s injury and has played well in his first extended action. The redshirt freshman completed 9 of 12 passes for 132 yards and one score in the 32-27 win over Toledo and threw for 190 yards and two touchdowns on 15 completions against Buffalo. Depth at the quarterback position is a concern for Northern Illinois, but coordinator Bob Cole has utilized Graham on 28 runs so far, recording 119 yards over the last two games. With a strong supporting cast and steady offensive line, Graham does not have to win this game on his own. The redshirt freshman needs to simply match his production and play from the last two games, limit his mistakes and take care of the ball. When Graham throws, standout Kenny Golladay (15.7 yards per catch) will be the top target. Graham and the rest of the Huskies’ offense should have opportunities to make plays against a Western Michigan defense allowing 5.8 yards per play in conference contests.
2. The Running Backs
This Wednesday night matchup features a couple of the MAC’s best at running back. Northern Illinois’ Joel Bouagnon leads the conference with 110.6 rushing yards per game, while Western Michigan’s rushing attack is a three-man rotation. Redshirt freshman Jamauri Bogan leads the way for the Broncos, averaging 76.4 yards per game. Bogan has recorded back-to-back 100-yard efforts and seems to have supplanted Jarvion Franklin as the go-to back for Fleck. Franklin rushed for 1,551 yards and 24 scores last season but has only 43 yards on 11 carries over the last two games. And when Franklin or Bogan needs a rest, LeVante Bellamy has showed big-play ability (7.7 yards per carry) in limited snaps. How will both teams handle the battle up front? In conference games, it’s a virtual draw. The Broncos rank fourth in the MAC by allowing 142.3 yards per game, while the Huskies are fifth at 147 per contest.
3. Northern Illinois’ Secondary vs. Western Michigan’s Passing Attack
It’s a matchup of strength versus strength when the Western Michigan passing offense takes on Northern Illinois secondary. The Huskies are No. 1 in the MAC in pass efficiency defense, while the Broncos rank third in the conference in passing offense. Quarterback Zach Terrell ranks third in the MAC by averaging 265.1 yards per game and has tossed 23 scores to just seven picks this season. Terrell has plenty of help from his supporting cast, which includes two receivers headed for All-MAC honors in Corey Davis (69 catches) and Daniel Braverman (90 catches). The junior has only one interception over his last six games, but that total will be put to the test against an opportunistic Northern Illinois’ secondary. The Huskies have intercepted 17 passes and are led by a strong group of candidates for All-MAC honors, including safety Marlon Moore and cornerbacks Shawun Lurry and Paris Logan. This unit has allowed only seven passes of 30 or more yards in conference games this season. Can the Huskies continue their streak of opportunistic play? Or will the Broncos find a few cracks in the secondary for big plays?
Northern Illinois has set the standard for the rest of the teams in the MAC West. And at 5-1 in league play, the Huskies are on the doorstep of another trip to Detroit. Western Michigan is a program on the rise under Fleck and needs a win in DeKalb to keep its division title hopes alive. There are reasons to like the Broncos’ chances at an upset. However, it’s hard to pick against a team that has experience in situations like this one, and the Huskies – while not flashy or as dynamic on offense as Western Michigan – can win with defense, limiting mistakes and a strong rushing attack. The Broncos come close, but Northern Illinois moves closer to the West Division title with a tight victory on Wednesday night.