Wednesday night’s matchup between Western Michigan and Northern Illinois pits a pair of bowl-eligible teams that aren’t quite ready to concede the race in the MAC West. Both the Broncos (6-4, 4-2 MAC) and Huskies (7-3, 5-1) are looking up at Toledo in the standings, but each could still put pressure on the Rockets depending on the outcome of this game.
WMU finishes its regular season at Toledo next Friday. So a win over Northern Illinois is a must if the Broncos even want a chance of winning the division, and even then they would need some help. For the Huskies, a win at home over WMU would leave them no worse than tied with Toledo for first (depending on the outcome of the Rockets’ game Wednesday night against Bowling Green) with a Nov. 24 date against Central Michigan remaining.
Toledo owns tiebreakers over both Western Michigan and Northern Illinois by virtue of a pair of head-to-head wins, but all is still not lost for the Broncos and Huskies. Any of the three could wind up in the MAC Championship Game on Dec. 2, especially should the Rockets lose to Bowling Green and the Broncos beat the Huskies. That would create a three-way tie for first at 5-2 and only add to the intrigue of those Black Friday pairings.
Western Michigan at Northern Illinois
Kickoff: Wednesday, Nov. 15 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Northern Illinois -10
Three Things to Watch
1. Which team gains the most ground?
This game pits two of the MAC’s top rushing offenses against two of the top rushing defenses. Western Michigan is No. 1 in the MAC and 14th nationally at 249.2 rushing yards per game. Jarvion Franklin is the Broncos’ lead horse with a conference-best 1,061 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. He has recorded five straight 100-yard games and has run for 419 yards over his last two games alone. Northern Illinois will have its hands full trying to slow down WMU’s all-time leading rusher, but the Huskies have been up to the task throughout the season. NIU is first in the MAC and 10th in the FBS against the run, giving up just 109.8 rushing yards per game and only eight touchdowns (in 10 games).
As for the Huskies’ ground attack, they are fourth in the conference at 186.2 rushing yards per game. It’s been more of a collaborative effort for Northern Illinois as four different players have recorded at least 35 carries. Jordan Huff leads the way with 507 yards, but the senior running back also has missed three games because of injury. Quarterback Marcus Childers, who didn’t open the season as the starter, is tops on the team in both carries (110) and rushing touchdowns (four). As a team, the Huskies are averaging just 4.2 yards per carry (vs. WMU’s 5.1) but they have the second-most rushing attempts in the conference (440 vs. Broncos’ 487). Defensively, Western Michigan has done a good job of limiting the yards gained by opponents (147.0 ypg, third in MAC), but have surrendered 22 rushing touchdowns. Only two other MAC teams (Bowling Green, Kent State) have given up more.
Both teams will try and establish the run early, but will the defenses allow it? It will be interesting to see which team is able to take control on the ground first because it could end up determining the outcome of this game.
2. Which team gets the most from its quarterback(s)?
True freshman Reece Goddard will make this third start at quarterback for Western Michigan in place of John Wassink, who broke his collarbone against Eastern Michigan on Oct. 21. While Wassink was solid (14 TDs, 4 INTs) before he got hurt, Goddard has struggled with his accuracy (16-for-40, 40 percent). Fortunately, the Broncos’ offense is at its best with Franklin and the running game doing the heavy lifting. The key for Goddard against Northern Illinois will be to take care of the ball and try and make the plays when they are there, especially if the Huskies are able to slow Franklin down.
For Northern Illinois, a combination of injuries and ineffectiveness have led to three quarterbacks making starts this season. Ryan Graham won the job in fall camp, but the junior went down with a shoulder injury in the second game. He was replaced by sophomore Daniel Santacaterina, who had a hand in the upset of Nebraska in Lincoln but then struggled and was benched two games later and replaced by Childers, a redshirt freshman. Childers has started each of the past five games, going 4-1, and has shown an ability to make plays with his arm (13 TDs, 3 INTs over his last six games) and legs (398 yards, 4 TDs on the season).
All three quarterbacks saw snaps in last week’s 63-17 rout of Ball State. With Graham back in the picture, it’s possible that head coach Rod Carey could go back to his original starter or he could stick with Childers while making sure Graham is ready if called upon. Either way, it appears that the Huskies have the advantage over the Broncos at the quarterback position. Will that be enough to tilt this game in Northern Illinois’ favor?
3. Point production from the other phases
Both Western Michigan and Northern Illinois are averaging more than 30 points per game not only because they have been able to run the ball successfully, but also due to contributions in the scoring department from their defense and special teams. The Broncos have scored seven defensive and special teams touchdowns this season, including three in last week’s 48-20 rout of Kent State. Senior cornerback Darius Phillips has been responsible for four of these scores (two kickoff returns, interception, fumble), and now has 12 returns for touchdowns in his career, the most in FBS history.
The Huskies have produced five touchdowns on defense and special teams, including a pair of interceptions for scores in their upset of Nebraska earlier this season. Northern Illinois leads the MAC and is tied for fifth nationally with 14 interceptions, led by junior linebacker Jawuan Johnson’s four. With both teams showing an ability to create turnovers (22 for WMU, 19 for NIU) and make the most out of them, ball security and discipline on kick coverage are going to be critical Wednesday night.
Both Western Michigan and Northern Illinois are looking to apply some pressure to MAC West Division leader Toledo. Even though the Broncos and Huskies have already punched their postseason tickets, a potential bigger prize awaits depending on how these last two games play out. The approaches for both teams has been similar this season – run the ball and stop the other team from returning the favor – so the key in this one may be which offense is able to make more plays through the air or can make something happen on defense/special teams. Western Michigan boasts the conference’s best rusher in Jarvion Franklin, but it’s the discrepancy at quarterback that will be the deciding factor. The Broncos have a true freshman still finding his way, while Northern Illinois has three guys with starting experience who each have tasted success. In the end, three is better than one as the Huskies do their part to ensure that the West (division) won’t be won until next week.
Prediction: Northern Illinois 31, Western Michigan 24
(Top photo courtesy of @WMU_Football)