Two MAC West foes collide, heading in seemingly opposite directions.
Three years ago, one finished the regular season 1-11, while the other ran the table to a 12-0 start. But in 2016, the roles have reversed. The improved Western Michigan Broncos (5-0) are on the brink of the AP poll, while the Northern Illinois Huskies (1-4) are fighting their way out of the cellar.
Last time Western Michigan beat Northern Illinois, Louis Delmas was the star for the Broncos, Jordan Lynch was still in high school, the iPhone 3G was a hot commodity, and George W. Bush was still in office as president. The Huskies’ ignited this seven-game win streak in 2009, but open as 20 point underdogs in Saturday night’s conference clash.
The Huskies rebounded from a dismal start in Muncie last week, defeating Ball State 31-24 to earn their first victory. The offense is gaining a rhythm as quarterback Anthony Maddie, who was switched to wide receiver in August, gets more repetitions at quarterback. In the victory, the senior had a career day, rushing for a career-high 160 yards and passing for a career-high 298 yards. Former First-Team All-MAC running back Joel Bouagnon is finally into midseason form, overcoming a slow start to rush for 153 yards last week.
Despite the offensive remedies, the defense continues to serve as an issue in DeKalb. The Huskie defense allows the 15th-most yards in the nation, only forcing three turnovers in 2016. Northern Illinois only registered two sacks in the first four weeks but responded with five against Ball State. Defensive end Josh Corcoran anchored the defensive line in its most successful outing of the season. The promising sophomore recorded five tackles and two sacks against Ball State, and could develop as a forceful pass rusher for the Huskies.
However, for a team experiencing defensive struggles, facing Western Michigan may be dangerous. The Broncos have yet to unleash their potent passing game this season since the rushing attack has been so successful.
Western Michigan boasts the most rushing yards in the MAC, 14th in the nation. Sophomore Jamauri Bogan has continued to capitalize on his 1,051-yard freshman season by surpassing 100 rushing yards in his first four games. The only thing that has slowed down the back is an ankle injury, occurring on his sole carry in the 49-10 win over Central Michigan. Junior Jarvion Franklin, the MAC’s second-leading rusher in 2014, finished the job for Bogan, en route to a 132-yard and two touchdown performance in the rivalry game.
Bogan saw limited time in practice this week, but his status for Saturday remains unknown.
After defeating Northwestern by a point in week one, Western Michigan has forgotten the feeling of participating in close games. The Broncos have won their last four games by at least three possessions, succeeding at both home and on the road. This year, it is the Huskies’ turn to visit Kalamazoo, attempting to win their fourth straight at Waldo Stadium.
It won’t be easy for the Huskies. Despite past successes and a 1-0 start to conference play, Northern Illinois will have to upset a top-26 team, according to the latest AP poll. The Huskies recently faced a San Diego State team on the brink of the rankings in week two but lost 42-28. However, Rod Carey’s team beat the last ranked opponent they faced, No. 20 Toledo, on the road in 2015.
In order for the Huskies to extend their series win-streak to eight, the defense has to reverse the trend and force turnovers. But Western Michigan quarterback Zach Terrell has thrown zero interceptions this year, one reason the Broncos have been able to avoid close games. Northern Illinois should emulate the tactics of Northwestern, who was a goal-line fumble away from beating the Broncos.
Northwestern running back Justin Jackson rushed for 124 yards and three touchdowns against P.J. Fleck’s defense. The Wildcats also played decent pass defense, limiting Terrell to 218 yards on 36 attempts.
The Huskies demonstrated their capabilities on the ground last week against Ball State, and should run early and often with Bouagnon to have a chance at the upset. Prioritizing covering the MAC’s all-time receiving yards leader, Corey Davis, is key, but Northern Illinois can counter with former First-Team All-American cornerback Shawun Lurry.
The game kicks off 6:30 p.m. ET in Kalamazoo and airs on CBS Sports Network. With a win, Western Michigan becomes bowl eligible and moves to 6-0 for the first time in the program’s history. Also, the Broncos would likely catch attention of voters and jump into the AP poll—another program first. If the Huskies win, they stay alive in the MAC race once again and remain in contention for a seventh straight MAC West title.