Additionally, read after the jump for a Q&A with the NIU blog Red And Black Attack.
My first post on this site asked the following question: Is This The Year Frank Solich And Ohio Capture The MAC Title?
Three and half months later, Ohio is in position to do just that. Though there were some bumps in the road (read: injuries) that prevented them from having a 12-0 Cinderella season, the Bobcats finished off the year strong, winning their last five regular season game, which included a one-point thriller against Bowling Green to clinch their spot in the MAC title game and a nice 21-14 victory in the Battle of the Bricks to close it out.
But now Ohio faces its toughest MAC test of the season: Northern Illinois. Rutgers is a better football team than the Huskies but Northern Illinois poses just as big of a threat to the Bobcats because of their star senior quarterback, Chandler Harnish. Whereas SANU is what burned Ohio when they took on the Scarlet Knights, the Bobcats will now be tested by a dual-threat quarterback that reminds me a bit of Tyler Tettleton, only he has better numbers.
Harnish is his team's leading passer and rusher, with 2,692 yards through the air and 1,351 yards on the ground. With Harnish at the helm, the Huskies rank eighth in the country in rushing yards and 11th in scoring offense. Of course, they do play in the MAC and when you are getting into 63-60 shootouts (or something close to that) every week, the numbers will reflect that. The Huskies have a dynamic offense, but it isn't unstoppable. When they took on Wisconsin, they were only able to muster seven points. Additionally, though they scored 42 points, Northern Illinois was the only FBS team that lost to Kansas this year (so what if Kansas finished 2-9, Turner Gill can kick some MAC butt).
With the Huskies doing most of the work on the ground, it should be encouraging to Bobcat fans that Ohio has the third best defense in the MAC. That said, they faced a banged up Bernard Pierce, so he wasn't able to screw with that average, and the one mobile quarterback that they faced this season absolutely gashed them. Ironically, it came in that Temple game and it was because Pierce wasn't effective. After a drive, the Owls went with Chris Coyer at quarterback and in addition to throwing for 123 yards and three scores, rushed 17 times for 184 yards (10.8 yards per carry). Now, you can look at that one of two ways: either it's good that Ohio got gashed in a regular season game that they won because they were able to see their mistakes on film and correct them or Coyer exposed the Bobcats for not being fundamentally sound defensively and Harnish will have a field day in the MAC title game.
Of course I'm biased but I'd have to imagine Frank Solich has been able to correct his defense for the upcoming game. And Ohio is also in a better situation preparation wise because they've had over a week to prepare for Harnish while Coyer wasn't Temple's starter, came in unexpectedly and didn't play last year so Ohio didn't know what kind of player he was. At this point you have to expect the Huskies to put up points. Ohio may have a good defense but Northern Illinois has a great offense and Harnish is a star. Even if they limit him on the ground, he can throw the ball as well. Forcing him to throw may be the preferred option but one way or another, this is a team that's going to put up points.
So the pressure will fall on Tyler Tettleton, just like it has all year long. And just like he has all year long, I expect Tettleton to face the pressure without being phased. This kid has been money all year long. Whether it be big games or big moments, he's passed every test throw at him and he's one of the best first year starting quarterback in the country. Where Ohio has the advantage is that they have a pretty high powered offense that can match points with NIU and a defense that ranks highly in the conference. Northern Illinois, on the other hand, has the offense but their defense is suspect, which is a byproduct of their system but also a representation of an average to below average group.
I'm confident that the Bobcats playmakers will show up in this game when it matters most. This the game they've been waiting for all year long and now that they are finally getting back to 100% health-wise, they should be able to withstand the Huskies' offensive attack while putting up some points of their own. Tyler Tettleton may very well be this conference's next Chandler Harnish and a big performance in this game would go a long way to make that a more commonly held perception. LaVon Brazill making big plays in a conference title game will only further NFL's scouts opinions on him. The same goes for Noah Keller, another medical red shirt senior that has a chance to make it to the next level. As the unquestioned leader of the defense, Keller will play an interval part in Ohio's plan to stop Chandler Harnish. Donte Harden is also a senior and he's been one of the most versatile players in the conference (866 rush yards, 517 return yards, 216 receiving yards) and he'd be a 1,000 yard rusher if he hadn't missed two games earlier in the year.
I'm sure fans of the Huskies can say that same thing about several of their seniors and they'll have the same motivation for this game as the Bobcats. That said, I truly believe that Ohio is the more talented team and that they'll leave Detroit with a MAC title under their belt.
Just like I predicted.
For some more analysis on NIU, here is my Q&A with Mike Breese of Red and Black Attack:
1. The Bobcats have had mobile quarterbacks in the past but this season they were gifted with a quarterback that could both run and throw the ball in Tyler Tettleton. What should OHIO expect from Chandler Harnish? It seems like the two are pretty similar players with Tettleton having an edge through the air and Harnish being the better runner.
I fully expect Chandler Harnish to be on his A-game in the MAC Championship, because he has managed to step it up in the past when the team needed him the most. Harnish is going to be extra motivated this week, because last week he did not have a great performance, completing only half his passes for under 100 yds. This week I fully expect the stars to lineup and for Harnish to have a great passing game along with success in the read option QB play which is his bread and butter game-in and game-out rushing the ball
2. With Harnish getting the majority of attention for being the team's top rusher is Jasmin Hopkins overlooked or simply the second best runner on the team?
NIU has been spoiled by great running backs such asand Garrett Wolfe in the past, so Jasmin Hopkins has kind of fell by the wayside. He had a slow start to the season, but the Huskies wouldn't have gone undefeated in-conference without him. His game against Ball State really saved the season from the brink.
3. Who did the best job of containing Harnish this season and what did they do differently to stop him? Do you think the Bobcats have the personnel capable of slowing him down?
The best a MAC team has done against this Harnish and this offense was probably Buffalo or EMU this past week. Both teams sent a lot of pressure and just had solid, fundamental D. The offense seems to get into a funk sometimes, just out of nowhere it seems. Other times the offense is unstoppable. It's really up to Harnish and how well he makes his throws. Being thrown off somehow really affects that.
4. There have been 40 points scored by at least one team in all but two of Northern Illinois' games this season. Do you think getting into shootouts all season long will be help them or will they not react well in the event that the Bobcats' defense is able to keep them from getting on the board early and often?
The Huskies have showed resolve all season long in pressure situations. They don't believe that they are going to lose this game on Friday. They got flustered against EMU, but still won the game. NIU should bounce back from that poor performance.
5. Northern Illinois has the 10th ranked scoring and passing defense in the conference, do you think the Bobcats will be able to move the ball on them consistently?
Probably, but who knows. The defense has been playing solid ever since the Toledo shootout. They can make the stops when they have to.
6. Is NIU missing any major players due to injury or suspension?
No. OLB Jamaal Bass is back from his suspension from knocking over a Toledo band member and LG Logan Pegram is back from a knee injury.
7. Which OHIO player scares you the most?
Tettleton because he's mobile and Brazill because he's fast & had two TDs the last time we played you guys.