For the first time this season, we have a full slate of pure MACtion. Six games, 12 teams, and every matchup affects the conference standings.
The Battle of I-75, the most heated interdivisional rivalry in the conference, transpires Saturday afternoon between Toledo and Bowling Green. Buffalo looks to rebound from a brutal loss during a trip to Mount Pleasant versus the Chippewas. And Ohio looks to dust off mediocrity and exceed the .500 mark in a matchup against Kent State.
In some of the less one-sided games of the weekend, Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan become the first MAC teams from The Great Lakes State to settle it on the field this year. The Broncos have strung together three-consecutive wins behind Jon Wassink and a revived offense, while Eastern Michigan has strung together three-consecutive losses with more bounces of bad luck.
Akron’s only 2-1 after its second bye of the season (thanks to a Week 1 lightning delay), but the Zips return to action against Miami (OH) at InfoCision Stadium. Miami nearly topped Western Michigan in Oxford a Saturday ago, and the RedHawks vow to remain competitive against one of the three MAC teams with a winning record.
Lastly, NIU travels to Ball State. The Huskies’ defense pitted against the Cardinals’ offense will be quite the matchup to watch. Northern Illinois, the team with a 2-0 record in MAC play, will try to wake up the offense and replicate last season’s 63-17 result, while an improved Ball State strives to notch its third win of 2018.
Our panel of Hustle Belt writers discuss some of the hottest topics in the conference entering a MACtion-filled Week 6:
1. Buffalo got absolutely trounced by Army at home, 42-13. Are the Bulls still the top team in the conference after the 29-point beatdown?
Steve Helwick (@s_helwick): Buffalo remains the top team in the MAC despite the ugly home loss. The Bulls still own the top record in the conference and they possess top-notch talent in a variety of positions. The QB-WR combo of Tyree Jackson and Anthony Johnson is the best in the conference and the Bulls’ defense is equipped with star pass rusher Chuck Harris and tackle machine Khalil Hodge. Last week was a fluky performance for Buffalo because the unique triple option-based offense had the team out of sorts. That’ll show on Saturday when it visits Central Michigan.
Dave Drury (@ddrury86): I think Buffalo is certainly still in the top-tier of MAC teams right now, along with Toledo and Ohio… and dare I say NIU (after all, they are the only 2-0 MAC squad). Army’s triple option is a hard nut to crack and Buffalo fell flat doing so. But I think they’ll rebound nicely this week and defeat CMU.
Jordan Rinard (@JordanRinard): Yes, they are. UB just ran into an absolute buzzsaw in Army, but they’re still far and away the best team in the MAC this year. There’s not many teams that are going to look good against the Black Knights this year.
2. In a recurring theme, Miami (OH) and Eastern Michigan lose heartbreaking, one-possession games once again. Which fanbase has endured more torture over the past few seasons?
Helwick: Although Miami (OH) has dropped the last eight one-score games it’s been involved in, I have to go with Eastern Michigan. Dating back to the 2016 matchup with NIU, the Eagles are 0-6 in overtime games, with the last occurring in 3OT versus NIU last Saturday. Eastern Michigan nearly started 8-0, but the Eagles started 2-6 because of lots of bad breaks, from missed game-winning field goals to failed two point-conversions to last minute turnovers. The Eagles have already succumbed to two overtime defeats and three winnable one-possession losses this season, and it’s starting to look like 2017 all over again.
Watching Eastern Michigan is like being an Atlanta Falcons fan and rewatching Super Bowl LI every single weekend. Now that’s torture.
Drury: I have to say EMU. Last season they could have easily been undefeated, as only one of their seven losses was by more than 7 points and three games went to OT. This year has been more of the same, with two consecutive overtime losses and a 7-point defeat in Buffalo… that’s real tough. At least Miami has had some blowout wins and losses… all of EMU’s games the past two seasons have been super close.
Rinard: Miami and it’s not even close. The RedHawks are now 5-19 in one-possession games in Chuck Martin’s tenure, and things do not look promising for the ‘Hawks in 2018 with their only win coming against a Bowling Green team that can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. Miami is in for a long season if adjustments aren’t made.
3. It’s the first week of all conference games. Which underdog has the best chance of pulling out the upset Saturday?
Helwick: For the record, I picked all favorites. But out of the three underdogs, Ball State has the best shot at a W. The Cardinals will have home field advantage over NIU in Muncie, and they sport a much better offense than their opponent. Longtime starter Riley Neal played the best game of his career last Saturday with 402 passing yards and four touchdowns, in a 52-24 victory over Kent State. NIU has a sturdy defense, but it’ll be tough for the Huskies to match Ball State’s offense punch-for-punch.
Drury: For sure it’s Ball State. The Cardinals face an NIU team that has a stout defense but can’t move the ball. BSU’s offense has been lighting it up this year and, if the Huskies defense can’t get any pressure on Riley Neal, I think the Cardinals can end their nine-game losing streak against the Huskies. Of course, as an NIU fan, I don’t want to see that happen… but this game makes me real nervous.
Rinard: I really like Kent State against Ohio. This is the time of year where they can really gel as a team and they can present a lot of problems for an Ohio team that has looked lackluster to this point. A win over Frank Solich would certainly establish KSU as a future contender in the MAC.
4. Who are the best and second best running backs in the conference right now?
Helwick: The best running back is LeVante Bellamy from Western Michigan. For a running back averaging 7.3 yards per carry, he should be allocated more than 12.4 touches per game. Bellamy’s speed is unmatched on the field and his ability to explode in open field is dangerous. The second best running back is less clear-cut, but Ball State’s James Gilbert deserves that spot. Gilbert showed us his potential when he rushed for 1,332 yards and 12 scores in 2016. He’s coming back from a season-ending injury and ranks third in the conference in rushing yards with 342. Also, Gilbert has registered four touchdowns for the Cardinals’ improved offense.
Drury: Based solely on stats, it’s hard not to say WMU’s LeVante Bellamy. His 455 yards leads the MAC and his average of 7.3 yards per carry is insane… especially because he’s run it 62 times! But I’m going to say second place is a tie between two running backs going against each other this week – Ball State’s James Gilbert and NIU’s Tre Harbison. Gilbert is averaging 4.7 yards per carry and has 342 yards and four scores. While Harbison hasn’t found the end zone as much (just once), he is netting 5.5 yards per carry and has 371 yards, most of which have come against MAC opponents. In his two conference games, Harbison is averaging 130 per game… I’ll take that any day.
Rinard: LeVante Bellamy is the MAC’s top back with 455 yards and three touchdowns, while Tre Harbison for NIU is having a sneaky good year with 371 yards and a score. Bellamy will a chance to rack up some yards in conference play, while the Huskies picking up more wins would help elevate Harbison’s profile in the MAC.
5. After losing by just one score to Notre Dame, losing to a 1-4 WKU team at home, and then dismantling Kent State, what is your assessment of the 2018 Ball State Cardinals?
Helwick: After watching the unpleasant things Notre Dame imposed upon Stanford’s defense, I’m still baffled that Ball State only lost to the Irish by one possession in South Bend. The loss to an awful-looking WKU team didn’t help, but I think Ball State used that as a major learning experience. The Cardinals are on the right track right now and the health of their offense is leading to promising results, such as last week’s 28-point win versus Kent State. Ball State won’t sniff bowl season, but I’m seeing about a 5-win year — a promising trajectory after last year’s 2-10 debacle.
Drury: The Cardinals are a very solid team this year. As I said earlier, I’m quite worried about this game against NIU. Riley Neal has played great football at QB for Ball State and they have a trio of receivers to watch out for. I could easily see them being a dark horse for the MAC West title… but hopefully it’ll be after losing to NIU this weekend.
Rinard: I feel like Ball State is really going to be a tough out in MAC play. Everyone knows how good Notre Dame is this year, Western Kentucky played a loaded Marshall team tough, and Kent State showed some spurts of being a good football team early in the season. When healthy, Ball State can be dangerous and will end up getting some surprising wins this season.