It’s been a tumultuous two weeks for both the Central Michigan Chippewas (4-2, 1-1 MAC) and the Northern Illinois Huskies (1-5, 1-1 MAC) to start off the conference schedule.
CMU looked listless against rival Western Michigan at home in front of a sold-out crowd in a 49-10 loss that exposed weaknesses on both sides of the ball for the Chips, but managed to slay a dragon in the form of Ball State with a thrilling 27-24 victory against the football Cardinals on Homecoming Weekend.
The second game was an important one for the Chippewas, who snapped a home losing streak to the Cards that had existed since 2008.
The Huskies, meanwhile, have engaged in two thrilling contests under new quarterback Anthony Maddie. Maddie, who started the season at wide receiver, moved back under center after a season-ending injury to Drew Hare and ineffective performances from Ryan Graham.
NIU came back from behind to retain the Bronze Stalk against Ball State thanks to Maddie’s 400+ yard, three touchdown performance on offense and key defensive stops in a 31-24 win. NIU then kept up with WMU in a solid back-and-forth affair before becoming overwhelmed by Corey Davis’ second-half performance to lose by a score of 45-30.
The Huskies will host this affair on Saturday afternoon; the last meeting at Huskie Stadium didn’t go very well for them. Thomas Rawls ran ruck shod over the NIU defense with a strong performance, finishing the day with 270 yards and two touchdowns on 40 carries in a 34-17 shellacking.
The loss marked the end of the Huskies’ illustrious 28-game home winning streak that dated back to 2009. Prior to that point, CMU held the last non-NIU conference win at Huskie Stadium, beating the Huskies in 2008.
Last season, head coach John Bonamego collected his first conference win as a head coach against the Huskies on a wet and rainy day in Mt. Pleasant. Cooper Rush threw for two touchdowns and Jahray Hayes ran for another, while Ken Golladay only caught six passes for 54 yards and NIU as a unit turned the ball over four times in a 29-19 loss.
Both squads find themselves at critical junctures in the season.
NIU currently sits at 1-5 and cannot afford to make any more mistakes if they ever hope to make a bowl this season, much less have any chance at the MAC West divisional title, a status symbol NIU has managed to keep the last seven seasons.
CMU, meanwhile, is in the midst of the heart of their schedule. Getting three out of four of WMU, Ball State, NIU, and Toledo is tantamount to the Chips’ chances of becoming bowl-eligible or even staging themselves for a late run for the West, which becomes more of a reality if WMU or Toledo fall late in the season.
Rush must shake the cobwebs early in this game for any hope of a decent day. The last two games have been less than ideal for the CMU gunslinger, who accumulated 447 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions in those matchups. Rush’s adjusted QBR for the WMU game was a paltry 8.0.
Jesse Kroll, who usually has good games against NIU, is done for the season, meaning Rush will have to rely on newbies Corey Willis and Mark Chapman against a veteran secondary that includes all-MAC selection Shawun Lurry.
NIU has sat pretty statistically on offense with the emergence of Maddie, who has collected 793 total yards of offense for five total touchdowns with only three interceptions in his first two conference games.
Golladay has collected 18 receptions, 293 yards and two scores and Joel Bouagnon has collected 32 carries for 212 yards and a score in the Huskies’ new option-hybrid offense. Tony Annese will return to the safety spot this week to play alongside Josh Cox and Amari Coleman, the MAC West defensive player of the week, to bolster the defensive backfield.
The key matchup to watch will be the Chippewas’ ability to stop the run against a suddenly productive run game. The Chippewas let Ball State’s James Gilbert run loose last week for 141 yards and two scores on 27 carries and have shown weaknesses in stopping the run, especially up the middle. Bouagnon and Maddie could have a field day if those problems continue. CMU must limit NIU at the line and force them into passing situations, which is a strong suit for CMU.
The game will be played at 3:30 p.m. EST and will be live-streamed on ESPN3 on Saturday afternoon.