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2017 Week 8 Preview: Northern Illinois Huskies at Bowling Green Falcons

Reminiscent of the good ol' MAC Championship days...

MAC Championship - Bowling Green v Northern Illinois Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Bowling Green and Northern Illinois will be playing for the fifth straight year, second-consecutive meeting in the regular season. As sports fans, we have become accustomed to trilogies. We've had three-straight occurrences of a Warriors-Cavaliers NBA Finals and many await a third-consecutive Clemson-Alabama national championship game.

Although the contests were never close, the MAC had its own "three-match" between Bowling Green and Northern Illinois in the conference title game from 2013 to 2015. The Falcons took the tail end matchups over the Huskies, while Rod Carey and Co. celebrated their 2014 MAC Championship.

No team has been able to win consecutively in this series in recent years, but the 4-2 Huskies enter Doyt Perry Stadium as heavy favorites over the 1-6 Falcons.

Is NIU back?

Northern Illinois experienced a downfall year in 2016, but it still beat Bowling Green soundly. The Huskies finished 5-7 and missed out on a bowl game for the first time since 2007. With many key players back from injury and sitting on a hot seat entering the season, Rod Carey has silenced many doubters with four wins at the season's midway mark.

Carey's statement victory occurred in Lincoln when his Huskies upset the Nebraska Cornhuskers 21-17. The fifth-year head coach was doused in a Gatorade bath following the victory, a game in which the Huskies held Nebraska to zero first half points. NIU nearly followed up the win with an upset over a then-ranked San Diego State program, falling 34-28 on the road to the Aztecs. The Huskies' other loss, the opener against Boston College, was a heartbreaker at the hands of the Eagles in DeKalb, where a botched field goal prevented Northern Illinois from forcing overtime.

In the Chandler Harnish and Jordan Lynch eras, the Huskies were primarily renowned for their offense. But this season, Northern Illinois boasts one of the best units in the nation, but on the other side of the ball.

The Huskies' defense has been their strong point all year, anchored by defensive end Sutton Smith. The AP Midseason All-America selection leads the NCAA in both sacks (8.5) and tackles for loss (16.5) — and he's only a sophomore. Smith has forced two fumbles and definitely ranks among the elite defensive ends in the nation. He's been the Huskies', and the conference's, primary breakout star in 2017.

Junior defensive end Josh Corcoran lines up opposite side of Smith, and he's done a solid job as well with 1.5 sacks and five tackles for loss. The Huskies' yards per game defense ranks seventh in the FBS, particularly specializing in stopping the run (93.5 opponent rushing yards per game).

This stat can also be credited to a relentless linebacking corps, led by Bobby Jones IV and Jawuan Johnson. These two veterans combine for 15.5 tackles for loss and 98 tackles through six contests this season. Another strong member of the unit was inside linebacker Kyle Pugh, but he suffered a ruptured bicep tendon in the loss to San Diego State and will miss the remainder of the season.

The secondary isn't the strongpoint of the defense, but the unit has done its job when needed. Against Nebraska, Northern Illinois returned two pick sixes to the house, and one of them was made possible by former All-American cornerback Shawun Lurry. Lurry leads the NCAA in interception return yards with 132 and possesses excellent quickness and coverage abilities for the cornerback position despite his smaller stature.

So, NIU has the sacks leader, the tackles for loss leader, and the interception return yards leader on the team. Why aren't they ranked and chanting "We Want Bama?"

Good question. Most of it starts with the offense. Although slightly improved from a year ago, the offense has been unable to establish consistency, and that may be because of the fact that the Huskies have started three different quarterbacks under center this season and still seem undecided as to whether redshirt sophomore Daniel Santacaterina or redshirt freshman Marcus Childers is the long-term solution at the position.

Santacaterina started in the victory over Nebraska, but only threw for 128 yards in the game, primarily excelling on just one possession in the fourth quarter. He followed up the win with a career-high 262 yards against San Diego State, consistently hitting the deep ball, but he struggled by throwing three interceptions, which ultimately cost NIU the ballgame. When Santacaterina tossed his first turnover of the day against Kent State in Week 6, he was immediately swapped for the younger Childers.

Childers threw for 114 yards and three touchdowns in a 24-3 victory over lowly Kent State. He played a solid game at Buffalo in his first career start, passing for 224 yards and one touchdown in the one-point victory. Most importantly, Childers has run the ball a lot better than Santacaterina this year. He earned a team-high 79 yards on the ground last week and was even inserted into the offense for wildcat plays back when he backed up Ryan Graham (who is currently injured) and Santacaterina.

Childers will likely get the start against Bowling Green, and this should play to his advantage, as Bowling Green's run defense is on the opposite side of the spectrum as Northern Illinois'.

Bowling for Moral Victories

Bowling Green is now 1-6, but at least the Falcons are not playing like the 129th or 130th best team in the nation anymore. After a disastrous start to the season, Bowling Green rebounded nicely by showing promise in a road loss to Middle Tennessee before upsetting Miami (OH) in Oxford in Week 6. Last week, the Falcons put up 30 points on a tough Ohio team, hanging with the Bobcats through the majority of the game.

At quarterback, freshman Jarret Doege looked like the answer until his injury in the loss to Akron. Doege has been practicing this week and may see time later this season, but expect sophomore James Morgan to start on Saturday. Morgan's accuracy has been an issue all season long for the Falcons, and he has completed under 45-percent of passes in four of six games. He has thrown eight touchdowns and five interceptions, with three of those scores in his team's lone victory of the season.

His top two receivers are Teo Redding and Scott Miller, both of whom sit above the 400-yard receiving mark on the season. Redding particularly excelled during the win over Miami, where he blasted off for a career-high 197 yards on eight catches, scoring two touchdowns in the process. Although Redding couldn't follow up and only attained 10 yards last week, Miller returned as Morgan's primary target en route to 95 yards against Ohio.

Another small victory for Bowling Green this season is the improvement of the run game. In the 24-13 loss to Middle Tennessee, the Falcons rushed for one yard. Yes, just one measly yard on 29 attempts. But instead of lamenting on that performance, Bowling Green went straight to work. In their past two outings, the Falcons have rushed for 275 and 229 yards, fielding three 100-yard rushers in those games.

The run game emerged when freshman halfback Andrew Clair started getting involved. In his past two games, Clair has rushed for 269 yards on 34 attempts (7.91 yards per carry). He scored his first two touchdowns of his young college career against Ohio last Saturday.

Senior Josh Cleveland has been steady too in the past several weeks. Cleveland has attained 295 yards in his last three performances, reaching the peak of his 2017 season (so far) against the RedHawks with 117 yards on 10 carries.

Although the running game is improving, the rush defense is not. Ohio blew by the brown and orange jerseys en route to 335 team rushing yards last week. This has been a theme all season long, and only six teams allow more rushing yards per attempt (5.6) than the Bowling Green Falcons.

Keys to the Game

  • Huskies must keep it on the ground. Based on Bowling Green's defense and Childers' ability to power through opposing tacklers to establish an effective run game, Northern Illinois should have an easy path to at least 30 points in this one. Fumbling, which plagued the Huskies in the red zone last week, cannot occur though. The NIU running backs haven't been able to get it going lately, so now is time to increase their confidence and get either Jordan Huff or Tommy Mister that desired 100-yard game.
  • Bowling Green must capitalize on special teams. Northern Illinois' kicker Christian Hagan is 4-of-10 on field goals this year. At this point, there is little reason for the Huskies to attempt field goals longer than extra point range in close games. But Bowling Green's kicker Jake Suder, who sunk a 53-yard field goal for a scholarship this summer, is one of the top kickers in the country. Out of qualified kickers, he is sixth in percentage at 92.3 and can be the difference between winning and losing should the Falcons rely on his leg in crunch time. Bowling Green is also equipped with a phenomenal punter in Joseph Davidson, who can pin the Huskies deep and win the field position battle if the Northern Illinois offense becomes unproductive.
  • The Falcons need to force turnovers, a lot of turnovers. If San Diego State didn't intercept Santacaterina three times, we'd be talking about a 5-1 Northern Illinois program right now. If Childers didn't fumble in the red zone last week, Buffalo may not have gotten as close as 14-13 to Northern Illinois at UB Stadium. Turnovers have been deadly for the Huskies all season long, even in wins. If you recall, a muffed punt is what brought Nebraska back into the game, and the Cornhuskers finally found themselves on the scoreboard by capitalizing on the momentum created by the turnover. This momentum is exactly what Bowling Green needs. The Falcons beat Miami because of a 93-yard scoop-and-score in the waning minutes of the contest. They know how important winning the turnover battle is, and it is extremely vital when entering a game as heavy underdogs.

Game Notes

  • Time: 2 PM EST
  • Network: ESPN3/WatchESPN
  • Location: Doyt Perry Stadium — Bowling Green, OH
  • Spread: Northern Illinois (-14)
  • ESPN FPI: Northern Illinois has a 76.3% chance to win
  • All-time Series: Bowling Green leads 12-9. The Huskies defeated the Falcons 45-20 last November on mid-week #MACtion.

What Happens

Northern Illinois is going to stifle Bowling Green's running game, but based on the offensive prowess the Falcons showed against Miami and Ohio, James Morgan's unit is going to rack up enough points to make the scoreboard respectable. Northern Illinois' offense has yet to score more than 28 points against FBS competition, but Bowling Green's defense is as weak as it will get for the Huskies. Don't expect this one to get too high-scoring, but the NIU defense — the strongest unit on the field — will control how many points are put into this one.

Prediction: Northern Illinois 28, Bowling Green 20