There was a time when the MAC spanned but three states: Ohio, Michigan, and Ball. Once the diversification and annexations began, MAC country became rather impressive. Look at the two extremes: on the West, you have Northern Illinois, a once-proud program which scurried back to the smaller leagues, then returned and built up a factory of durable yet affordable running backs.
Temple, hastily tacked onto the conference three years ago, has also taken a similar route. There were some glorious seasons in the '70s, but since then it's been [SCENE MISSING] for Owls football, which included a Big East eviction and a horrendous losing streak. Bad luck continued until 2009, when they finally had a bowl game and an instillment of pride in something other than basketball and Bill Cosby bits, such as how basketball was invented.
These two teams are not rivals, at least not yet. They've played each other a total of three times. Their last game (in 2007) resulted in a 16-15 final, and since that's not really a football score, I remain unconvinced that it actually happened.
We really shouldn't be talking about NIU-Temple. But we are, because that's the MAC Game of the Week. And you're gonna like it. Oh ... you don't know much about either team, or what you'll like about in this game? Then let's dig deeper.
You have three (and a half) exciting running backs to watch. For the home team, there's Chad Spann, who ran ragged against Minnesota for 14.9 yards per carry ... on 15 carries. That YPC is slightly less than his total yardage (15) against Illinois. And yet he's still 12th in the nation in total yards. This is something I won't spend too much time pondering during the game, and you shan't either. Because by the time I do, Spann will already have a couple 20-yard gains tucked away.
And it won't be just Spann who burns into the secondary. If he doesn't get the handoff, odds are quarterback Chandler Harnish might have kept it cradled close to his heart and could be somewhere near the linebackers by now. What really puzzled me at the start of the year was how little attention Harnish garnered among MAC QBs. Here's a theory to float out there: maybe NIU just doesn't have very good receivers. Landon Cox is supposed to be their top threat, and he's averaging two catches. Per. Game. No one man has caught more than six balls in a game. It's a chicken-egg syndrome, but is Harnish just not finding these guys or are the wideouts just pulling the passing game down a little?
Going the other way, you may have heard of Mssrs. Bernard Pierce and Matt Brown. The latter, smaller one is your football-scope-only hero against Army last week, setting 'em up with 226 rushing yards and knocking 'em down with four touchdowns. The former, larger dude is the marquee name whose ankle is just about the only sore spot on this team.
Other than maybe the quarterback. No, not Vaughn Charlton — he's the tight end now. Current quarterback Chester Stewart has been described by his own campus newspaper as "deceptively bad," which is a glorious label that most athletes strive to avoid, especially from traditionally-biased media types. Hey, the Chicago Bears went to the Super Bowl with Rex Grossman. The Temple Owls can ride their way to the MAC Championship with Chester Stewart.
Your defenses are bad enough to allow big plays, but not terrible enough to allow 50. And you can get away with the occasional pass that misses everything but the Gatorade keg, provided your defense can pick you up on the other side. And that's what both of these teams have done. They both give up about 21 points a game each, which is fiscally sound given the conference.
Temple's got some names back there, particularly on the D-line. Whoever's on the NIU line should be calling dibs on blocking people other than Muhammad Wilkerson and Adrian Robinson. At least settle for trying to pick up Jaiquawn Jarrett on the blitz. Of course, none of those guys served in Iraq. Advantage: Jake Coffman.
You won't see many penalties. It's alarming if your team is flagged, say, 8.6 times a game, like Toledo is. NIU + Temple's total penalties per game: 8.6. Play on and play fast, non-cheating athletes.
Hope you like field goals! Michael Cklamovski, who handled kickoffs at Illinois for four years, had a 48-yarder earlier this year and a 51-yard bomb in high school. TU's Brandon McManus sees that varsity leg and raises it with a 53-yard gem seen this season. Range is not an issue here.
You might see a rematch in a couple months. This could be the start of those nü-rivalries akin to the Toledo-Marshall heavyweight fights of the '90s if Temple coach Al Golden sticks around, because NIU looks like they're also in a situation to be competitive for years. And what a perfect midpoint — Detroit — to see them play in. Of course, a loss will hurt either cause (and you can't immediately rule out Toledo, Miami, et. al.) but hopefully by the end of this game, you'll hunger for another one in December. It'll be far from a geographical rivalry, because it's too far.
Guess: No more pooh-poohing the Owls. Temple 30, Northern Illinois 26. And in terms of rushing numbers, give a hundy each to Spann and Brown.