Since their first meeting in 1967, Northern Illinois and Toledo have faced off 40 times, missing 1968, 1973, and 1993-1996. That's certainly a respectable series, and easily longer than some "rivalries" -- but it hasn't always been a terribly competitive series.
The series began in Toledo's glory days under head coach Frank Lauterbur, and the Rockets rolled over the Huskies, just like they did over everyone else. Northern Illinois won just one of the first ten meetings.
In the mid-1980s, the series turned balanced...perfectly balanced, in fact, as eight consecutive games were won by the loser of the prior game.
The balance didn't last, however, as Toledo then won the next 11 games, and that, combined with the mid-1990s gap in the series, meant that Northern Illinois went 15 years without a win in the series. As of 2005, I think the answer to "is this a rivalry" would have been an unequivocal "no".
But a few years into the Joe Novak era, the Huskies were contending for MAC West Division titiles -- they finished as co-division champions four of five years from 2001 to 2005 -- and meanwhile the Rockets under Tom Amstutz were sliding. The stage was set for an upheaval in the West Division.
But instead of Northern Illinois stepping up to take their turn at the head of the class, Brian Kelly, Butch Jones, Dan LeFevour, and Brady Hoke jumped the queue. Finally in 2010 Hoke was in San Diego, Kelly was in South Bend, Jones was in Cincinnati, and LeFevour was also in Cincinnati but not doing much.
If Northern Illinois and Toledo have a rivalry, it was born on November 9, 2010 -- fittingly, a Tuesday night -- in DeKalb. The Huskies came into the game with a 7-2 record, their only losses at Iowa State and a narrow one at Illinois, while the Rockets were 6-3 with losses to Arizona, to Wyoming, and at #4 Boise State. The one thing neither team had was a conference loss. Each team was 5-0 in the MAC, and each team had a pair of easy games remaining (Bowling Green, Central Michigan, Ball State, and Eastern Michigan were on the schedules). It was clear to anyone watching that this would be the game to decide the West, which of course is the better division.
With a game pairing the best two teams in the conference, with the title on the line, you would think it would have been a nail-biter. You'd have been wrong. The Huskies, led by Chandler Harnish and Chad Spann, took out 30 years of frustration in the first 30 minutes of the game, opening up a 28-0 halftime lead. Although Toledo made an effort in the second half, their 23 third quarter points weren't even enough to keep pace, as Northern Illinois added 28 of their own, en route to a 65-30 final score. It propelled the Huskies to the MAC Championship Game, Jerry Kill to Minnesota, and the third quarter was a harbinger of things to come.
If 2010 saw the birth of a rivalry, 2011 was its coming out party, complete with national TV coverage for the old-media crowd, and for the internet generation, a hashtag: #MACtion. Each team came into the game with three losses, but Toledo's losses at #15 Ohio State, to #4 Boise State, and in overtime at Syracuse (in a game Toledo properly won, but went into overtime when the referees called a field goal as a miss, though video evidence clearly showed it as good) looked far less bad than Northern Illinois losing to a bad Kansas team, getting blown out by Wisconsin, and then losing to a bad Central Michigan team.
None of that mattered after 7 PM on Tuesday, November 1, because the sports world was captivated by the game, which featured two ties, eight lead changes, more than 1,100 yards of offense, 123 points, and was won in the final 20 seconds. Other than defense, what more could a football fan ask for? The Huskies went on to win their first MAC championship in nearly three decades.
The next year the stakes were even higher. Toledo came into the game at 8-2, having just earned a #23 ranking and then lost it in a loss to Ball State the week before. However, the Rockets were still a game ahead of the Cardinals in the MAC West race, and a win over the Huskies would put them in the driver's seat with just a final game against lowly Akron remaining. Meanwhile Northern Illinois boasted a 9-1 record, their only loss coming by one point against Iowa in the season opener. A win for the Huskies would lock up the division for the third straight year.
It wasn't the defense-free wonder of 2011, but it was certainly still MACtion. After trading touchdowns in the first half, with Toledo staying on the good side, Northern Illinois exploded for three unanswered third-quarter touchdowns, and tacked on a field goal early in the fourth quarter. Toledo tried to battle back, but the 24 unanswered points for a 17 point deficit were just too much, and the Huskies held on to win the game, 31-24. The win propelled them not only to the West Division championship, but also a national ranking, and their subsequent overtime win in the MAC Championship Game pushed the ranking just high enough to qualify them for a BCS game.
And so here we are again. It's a weeknight in November. It's Northern Illinois, traveling to the Glass Bowl to face Toledo. It's the division championship on the line (mostly). Is it a rivalry? Maybe it is; maybe it isn't. But one thing's sure: it's MACtion, and it's great!