MAC Championship Game 2013 Preview: Bowling Green vs. No. 14 Northern Illinois

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

The Northern Illinois Huskies and Bowling Green Falcons meet on Friday evening in the 17th Mid-American Conference Championship Game, and never has more been on the line. Who fulfills their dreams and walks away with the crown?

2013 Mid-American Conference Championship Game
Bowling Green Falcons (9-3, 7-1 MAC)
vs. #14 Northern Illinois Huskies (12-0, 8-0 MAC)
Friday, Dec. 6th -- 8:00 p.m. ET
Ford Field -- Detroit, Mich.
TV: ESPN2 -- Streaming: WatchESPN.com

One team will play for a return trip to the Bowl Championship Series. The other will attempt to earn its first conference championship in 21 years. The Mid-American Conference player of the year will seek one final Heisman moment in a candidacy for the award that has turned incredibly real in recent days.

This year's MAC Championship Game is significantly important for both sides. The national stakes at play for NIU, make this arguably the biggest championship game in league history, but it's no less important for BGSU. A championship-less drought of 21 years is one the Falcons would desperately like to end, but more than anything else, Friday evening is the culmination of four-year journey. Bowling Green essentially hit the reset button following the 2009 season, then went 2-10 in 2010 while playing a lineup of almost entirely freshmen and sophomores. That group improved steadily, as they won five games in 2011 and eight more in 2012. Now, those players are ready to challenge the undisputed kings of the MAC.

Friday night will mark Bowling Green's first appearance in the MAC Championship Game since 2003 and only their second overall. That previous instance ended in a 49-27 loss at home to Ben Roethlisberger's Miami RedHawks, in the final on-campus edition of the title game. On the opposite side, Northern Illinois will be making their fourth consecutive appereance in the championship event and fifth overall. NIU is 2-2 in their previous four games but won their most recent appearance. The Huskies ended the undefeated-season dreams of Kent State with a 44-37 double-overtime victory in 2012. NIU currently holds a MAC record conference winning streak of 25 games -- they have not lost a MAC game since the 2011 conference opener against Central Michigan.

Bowling Green leads the all-time series with Northern Illinois 10-7, but most of those Falcon wins came prior to 2002. Through 1998, BGSU had won nine of the first 12 meetings. However, since that time, NIU has won four of the last five. The only exception was in 2003, when the Falcons beat the Huskies 34-18 in Bowling Green, with ESPN's College Gameday in attendance. NIU won the most recent meeting, 45-14 in 2011 at Bowling Green.

THE MATCHUPS
NIU OFFENSE VS. BGSU DEFENSE

This is obviously the premier matchup of the game and the one that deserves the closest scrutiny.

There's not much that can be said about the Huskies' prolific offense that hasn't already been said. They lead the MAC in scoring with 42.8 points per game and have scored 66 touchdowns in 12 games -- an average of 5.5 per contest. NIU generates 542.3 yards of offense per game, 56 yards more than their next closest competitor. They've run the most plays (918) and have the best yards-per-play average (9.1). Their season rushing total (3,827) is 940 more than the second-best team in the league, and their total offense (6,508) is just shy of 700 yards more than the next-best.

Northern Illinois ranks first in the league in rushing but only fifth in passing -- but don't let that deceive you. NIU's passing attack is one of the most efficient in the MAC, generating a completion percentage of 64.1, 7.8 yards per attempt, and a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 27 to 5. And all of it, both running and passing, goes right through Jordan Lynch.

Lynch is the epitome of a dual-threat player. He leads the MAC with 1,755 rushing yards and has had TWO 300-yard rushing days this season alone. Most players never have even one in their entire career. He also throws for 200 yards per game, and thus leads the MAC in total offense per game with 351 yards. Only two other players in the league have as many as 250 -- Keith Wenning and another guy in this game who we'll hear about later.

Of course, if you thought that Lynch was NIU's only weapon, well...sorry for you. If Lynch isn't running the ball, then Camer Stingily is, to the tune of 91.5 yards per game and 1,007 for the season. When Lynch is throwing, it's often to Tommylee Lewis. Lynch has 212 completions this year, and more than one in every three has gone to Lewis. Lewis' 74 catches (in just 10 games) don't generate flashy numbers like some of his counterparts around the league, but he's incredibly reliable. And he's back for this game.

On the other side, Bowling Green's defense has put together mind-blowing numbers in a league that simply is not supposed to feature defense. BGSU leads the MAC, by significant margins, in every major statistical category. They allow just 13.8 points per game, 7.5 fewer than any other MAC team. They allow 296.6 yards per game, 80 yards fewer than anyone else in the MAC, and they're giving up just 4.8 yards per play. Their rush defense is very sound, as they allow only 134.8 yards per game, but their pass defense is nothing short of spectacular. The Falcons give up just 161.8 passing yards per game and just 5.4 per attempt. They give up completions on only 55 percent of passes, and only ten completions all year have reached the end zone.

Bowling Green has given up just 23 touchdowns in 12 games, and if you think, "Oh, well, they're just allowing more field goals," you're wrong. Opponents kicked an astounding ONE successful field goal against BGSU in 12 games -- and that was MIami. On the touchdown front, 13 of the 23 allowed touchdowns occurred in BGSU's three losses, which means that BGSU has allowed only ten total touchdowns in nine wins. In the last 18 quarters alone, the Falcons have given up a grand total of three scoring drives -- two touchdowns and one field goal. That's 17 points in 18 quarters, and 10 of those quarters were against Toledo, Ohio and Buffalo.

The amazing thing about the Falcon defense is that it comes as close to a college version of the "No-Name Defense" as you will probably ever get. No Falcon ranks among the league leaders in tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, interceptions, passes defensed or fumbles forced. It's team defense, with all 11 players doing their job on every play.

Get the picture that this is "the irresistable force versus the immovable object" yet? We thought you might. So, who wins this titanic battle?

For Bowling Green, matchups in the secondary will be very important. Against a dual-threat quarterback, you need your corners to be able to win one-on-one matchups to allow the safeties and linebackers to worry more about the quarterback. If the defense has to devote extra players to the pass, there are fewer players to fill gaps, and that's where Lynch can be deadly.

For Northern Illinois, matchups along the offensive line will be key. One of the reasons that Bowling Green was able to stifle the Buffalo offense last week was the dominance of its defensive line. Ted Ouellet and his friends were able to win battles and had a constant presence in and around Buffalo's backfield. NIU needs to win those battles in order to be successful on offense.

Without a doubt, this will be the sternest test that both units have faced this season. Whomever emerges victorious will very likely win the game.

BGSU OFFENSE VS. NIU DEFENSE

This particular part of the game is not getting nearly as much publicity, but both units are very strong in their own right.

The Falcons' offense is third in the MAC with a scoring average of 34.4 points per game and has 53 touchdowns of their own. They're also third in total offense (464.1 yards per game) and rushing offense (209.7), as well as second in passing offense (254.4). It's a very well-rounded unit, and surprisingly enough, it's very young in places. While the interior of BGSU's offensive line is veteran, both tackles are freshmen, and both have held up incredibly well this year. They've done so for a sophomore quarterback, who replaced the incumbent senior just one quarter into the season, and a sophomore running back, who is having perhaps the best season ever by a BGSU back.

Matt Johnson was a virtual unknown outside BGSU before the season, but the league is well-aware of his talents now. He's thrown for 2,802 yards and ranks second in the MAC in pass efficiency. When you add his 236 rushing yards, he ranks third in the league with an average of 253.2 yards of total offense per game. Only Wenning and Lynch have more. His backfield mate, Travis Greene, is second in the MAC with 1,422 rushing yards and averages 6.1 per run. He also has ten rushing touchdowns -- but he isn't even the team leader in that category. That honor falls to freshman William Houston, who has 11. When Johnson throws, his most prolific target now is senior Shaun Joplin, who has 47 catches and averages 17.2 yards for each of those receptions.

The Falcons' receiver crew suffered big losses when Chris Gallon and Jared Cohen went down for the season, but others have stepped up to fill those gaps, especially Heath Jackson, who is seeing the most significant action of his career over the last two months of this season. And, as always, Johnson can look toward tight end Alex Bayer.

As good as Bowling Green's defense is, that of Northern Illinois is pretty good, too. The Huskies are third in the MAC for points allowed per game (23.6) and second in rushing defense (147.6). NIU is the best in the MAC in rushing defense per play, as they allow just 3.8 yards per carry. The only (perceived) weakness of the defense is in the secondary, where the Huskies are last in the MAC after allowing 263.8 yards per game. But is that number deceiving? I think so. NIU gives up a paltry 52.4 completion percentage, and only Buffalo's defense is better at that. They also give up just one touchdown pass for every 21.9 pass attempts and lead the MAC with 17 interceptions. So, NIU may give up the yards, but they don't give up much else.

Jason Meehan and Joe Windsor are tough pass rushers and are each in the top 20 of the league with 5 and 4 sacks each, respectively. George Rainey and Perez Ford also get in on the fun by being among the league leaders in tackles for loss. Against the pass, Marlon Moore (11) and Paris Logan (8) are among the MAC's best in passes defensed. So are Jimmie Ward and Dechan Durante, but they do even more. Ward has 14 passes defensed and leads the MAC with six interceptions. Durante has eight passes defended, three interceptions, as well as three forced fumbles. Attack those men at your own peril.

For both sides, the Bowling Green running game is going to be key. The BGSU offense wants to run to set up play-action later, while the NIU defense wants to stop the run and force Johnson into obvious pass situations. Bowling Green certainly wants to keep the NIU offense off the field as much as possible, so they'll feed Greene the ball early and often. If NIU can stop that and get an early lead, it could be a long day for the Falcons. Even with the win at Buffalo, Johnson has never been on a stage quite this big, and it remains to be seen if he will end up rattled, especially if NIU is able to force an early turnover or two.

SPECIAL TEAMS AND PRODUCTIVITY

Special teams appears to be fairly even, with perhaps the slightest of edges going to Bowling Green. Both teams' punt and kickoff coverage units are, in general, very good. The teams carry nearly identical (37.0 NIU, 36.9 BGSU) net punting averages and are similarly equal on kickoffs. On returns, both teams are near the top of the MAC and average just slightly over 21 yards for every kickoff return. However, BGSU leads the MAC with a 14.3 average on punt returns, thanks in large part to two runbacks for touchdowns. NIU averages just 8.1 yards per return. The Falcons also may have an edge when it comes to field goals. Tyler Tate has been very consistent this year with 14 makes in 17 tries, while Mathew Sims has been less reliable. He's made 15 kicks but did so in 23 attempts. If it comes down to kickers, which would you trust more?

What about productivity in crucial situations? It's very even there, as well. BGSU and NIU rank first and second, respectively, in third-down conversion rate on offense. They're both also very good (second and third) on defense against third down conversion attempts. Each is in the middle of the pack for penalty yards, just shy of 50 per game, and they're both near the top of the conference in turnover margin (NIU +14, BGSU +9). In the red zone, both teams are very successful, as they convert those chances into scores more than 85 percent of the time. Separating factors? NIU forces opponents into ten more penalty yards per game than BGSU does, while BGSU holds a significant edge in red zone defense. The Falcons allow scores on just 57.7 percent (15-for-26) of opponent red zone chances, while the Huskies allow scores more than 85 percent of the time.

BOTTOM LINE

Oddsmakers have installed Northern Illinois as a favorite in this game by a field goal. That's not exactly "toss-up", but clearly, they expect a close game. That certainly goes in line with what we've examined above. The numbers don't particularly favor one side or another -- rather, it's two exceptional teams pitting significant strengths against one another. This is one of those games where the little things will loom large, be they turnovers, dropped passed, missed kicks, or penalties at key times. The team that minimizes those mistakes will be the one to take home the MAC championship.

We're all set, and fewer than 48 hours remain until kickoff. MAC title games have a long history of surprise and intrigue, with many last-second finishes included. You never know exactly what will happen, but regardless of your allegiance in this game, let's hope for an all-time classic.

These are two teams that can certainly deliver.

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As an added bonus, here's an interview that we conducted this week with our friends over at HuskieWire. Enjoy their take on this game!

MAC Championship

If Tommylee Lewis is out for his third straight game, who will have to step up for the Huskie offense most (besides Lynch)?

Carey said Tommylee Lewis will play on Friday. Even without him, the Huskies have had plenty of depth wtih guys like Da'Ron Brown and Juwan Brescacin stepping up.

Does NIU have enough on defense to stop the Falcons if NIU’s offense falters?

NIU's defense has gotten better and better all season long. The Huskies definitely have enough on defense to keep the Falcons in check, but offense will win this game for the Huskies.

What do the Huskies have to do to win their third title in a row?

Keep doing what they've been doing. There's no reason to believe Jordan Lynch won't have a good game. If he does what he's expected to do and NIU's defense plays like it has been, NIU will win.

Who do you think wins?

Bowling Green has probably the best defense NIU has played all season, and the Falcons run the ball well and Matt Johnson is an efficient quarterback. However, I'm not betting against Lynch and Co. I'll say NIU 30, Bowling Green 21

BCS

With there being two possible BCS Busters all season long - before Fresno State lost last weekend - how closely have you, and NIU fans in general, kept tabs on Fresno this season?

NIU fans have followed Fresno extremely closely, because most thought the Bulldogs would have to lose for the Huskies to pass them. I've definitely watched a lot more of Fresno than I would have normally.

NIU is on the verge of a second straight BCS game and there will of course be doubters and critics. Do you think they will be as vocal about NIU's inclusion as they were last year?

I don't think so. I think part of the reason for the criticism last year was due to the fact the Huskies had one loss - they were the first one-loss non-AQ team to make the BCS. And people realize how good Jordan Lynch is. The fact that NIU has a guy who at this point looks like he'll finish second in the Heisman Trophy balloting will eliminate a lot of the doubters.

A lot of people said that last year’s team didn’t deserve the game. If the Huskies can win Friday, are they more deserving than last year?

There's no doubt. Last season, NIU lost to a mediocre Iowa team and had to catch a lot of breaks to earn the spot. This year, the Huskies' record is unblemished and I believe they're a better team.

The computer polls have NIU at #10, the AP poll has not had NIU above 18 all year long. Do you feel that there has been a voter bias against the Huskies this season?

I don't really think so. I think 16 is a relatively fair spot for NIU, though I'd put the Huskies ahead of Central Florida. In the Coaches Poll, they deserve to be ahead of both UCF and Louisville. Certainly a good case to be ranked ahead of Oklahoma as well.

Heisman

With some of the top Heisman candidates struggling late in the season, most people have moved Lynch in to their top-5. Do you think his strong play will get him an invitation to New York?

If the Huskies win Friday, I think he's a lock to go to New York. If NIU loses, he may be on the outside looking in.

And if he is invited where will he finish?

If the Huskies win he's going to finish second behind Jameis Winston. If NIU loses he's probably finishing fifth or so. I doubt they take five finalists this season.



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