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2018 Week 13 MAC Preview: Northern Illinois Huskies @ Western Michigan Broncos

The Huskies and Broncos look to put ugly Week 12 losses on the backburner.

Duke v Northern Illinois Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Western Michigan’s decision to go for the win on a two-point try in Muncie was much more than a game-deciding play. It was a division-deciding play. As LeVante Bellamy was stuffed by the Ball State defense at the line of scrimmage, Western Michigan earned its third-straight loss, while Northern Illinois received a major victory — a berth to Detroit for its seventh MAC Championship Game in nine years.

Just 24 hours later, Northern Illinois’ MAC West celebration came to a sudden halt. Although the Huskies will still be representing their division in Detroit, the team dropped its first conference game of the year in a disastrous 13-7 home loss to 5-6 Miami (OH).

Both the Broncos and Huskies entered Week 12 as considerable favorites, but both teams left with bitter tastes in their mouths after coming up short in midweek action. Now, Western Michigan aims to snap its three-game skid while Northern Illinois attempts to establish some semblance of an offense before playing for the conference throne.

When Western Michigan has the ball:

True freshman quarterback Kaleb Eleby will play in his fourth career game while making his third career start for the Broncos. Although none of his performances have resulted in wins, Eleby has done a solid job taking over for the injured Jon Wassink. The Missourian completes about 70% of his passes and averages over 210 passing yards per contest.

Offense hasn’t been the Broncos’ primary issue with Eleby behind center. In the quarterback’s three games, Western Michigan has allowed 152 total points, an average of 50.7 per game.

Expect the majority of the Western Michigan offense to be operated by a duo of senior running backs. It will be senior night in Kalamazoo, and LeVante Bellamy and Jamauri Bogan are sure to make an impact on their memorable night. The faster Bellamy achieved a career high 213 rushing yards on 35 carries at Ball State last Tuesday. The more powerful Bogan rushed for 105 yards and two touchdowns last week, extending his lead as the conference’s leader in rushing touchdowns. Bellamy leads all MAC players in rushing yards, while Bogan holds the conference title for rushing touchdowns.

In terms of the aerial attack, Western Michigan has an improving group of receivers. True freshman Jayden Reed has been one of the team’s bright spots in an otherwise mediocre season. Leading the team with 712 receiving yards and eight touchdowns, the future looks bright with the 6’0”, 170-pound receiver lining up on the outside.

D’Wayne Eskridge, the most experienced receiver, has been earning less targets recently after bursting onto the scene with a 240-yard game against Syracuse this year. Instead of utilizing their deep threat, Eleby is opting for shorter passes and greater tight end usage. That brings junior Giovanni Ricci into play. Ricci had one of his best games as a Bronco in Muncie, finishing with 65 receiving yards, a key fourth quarter touchdown, and a game-tying two-point conversion.

Western Michigan’s offense posted 41 points on Ball State last week, but repeating that result seems nearly impossible against Northern Illinois’ defense. Northern Illinois allows 20.3 points per game to sit atop of the MAC, boasting the 12th best rushing defense in the country. The Huskies have been a nightmare in backfields, producing 89 tackles for loss, trailing only Miami (FL), Clemson, and East Carolina in the category.

The Huskies’ elite defensive end duo of Sutton Smith and Josh Corcoran combines for 16 sacks on the season. As a team, Northern Illinois is tied with Clemson for the most sacks in the FBS with 40. Given Western Michigan’s poor pass protection as of late, Smith and the troops could play a major factor in forcing the Broncos into down-and-distance situations.

Despite the loss last Wednesday, the Huskies’ defense allowed six points — the second time in four games the unit refused to allow an offensive touchdown. The Huskies were lethal against Miami (OH)’s rushing attack, allowing 2.3 yards per play on the ground. They forced 10 RedHawk punts including seven three-and-outs. All that was missing was anything offensive.

When Northern Illinois has the ball:

When Western Michigan possesses the ball, both teams are playing to their identities and strengths. The Broncos are clearly an offensive team, and they’ve been primarily propelled by their running back duo to a six-win, bowl eligible season. Northern Illinois is strictly a defensive team, guided by a former All-American defensive end and a strong linebacking corps headlined by middle backer Kyle Pugh.

Flip the sides, and you have a disaster.

Western Michigan fired defensive coordinator Tim Daoust less than 24 hours after allowing 42 points to the FBS’s 100th ranked scoring offense. The Broncos have given up 51, 59, and 45 on this three-game losing streak, and no improvement seems to be in sight.

Luckily for the Broncos, they’ll be tested by 123rd ranked scoring offense in the nation at Waldo Stadium. NIU may possess a 7-4 record and a 6-1 mark in the conference, but the Huskies simply fail to move the ball down field. Any progress on Northern Illinois’ offense is usually created by the running backs, Tre Harbison (three-straight 100-yard games) and Marcus Jones (two-straight games with rushing touchdown). Senior offensive tackle Max Scharping plays a magnificent role in bringing the running game to its full potential. But the passing game is simply abysmal.

With the 121st yards per game passing attack in the nation, Northern Illinois is only trailed by a handful of programs that aren’t triple option based. Quarterback Marcus Childers often isn’t required to throw much to win, as NIU’s defense usually takes care of business, but the Huskies struggle playing from behind when down field passes are usually required. Childers has thrown for under 190 yards in all but one game this year, throwing 10 touchdown passes and seven interceptions on the season.

He’s a serviceable quarterback and has shown flashes of mobility, especially in a 169-yard rushing performance in an impressive comeback victory over fellow 7-4 squad Ohio. But the issue of throwing passes farther than screens remains an issue. The average Northern Illinois passing attempt gained 4.8 yards last week, which somehow paled in comparison to the team’s rushing average of 5.7.

Game Notes

  • Time and date: Tuesday, November 20 — 7 p.m. ET
  • Venue: Waldo Stadium (30,000) — Kalamazoo, MI
  • Network: ESPNU
  • Spread: Northern Illinois (-6)
  • ESPN FPI Predictor: Northern Illinois has 55.6% chance to win
  • All-time series: Western Michigan leads, 24-19

Western Michigan leads the historical series, primarily due to the team’s dominance over the Huskies in the 1970s. From 1969-82, the MAC West rivals played uninterrupted, and NIU only triumphed in a shutout in the 1975 contest.

Recently, NIU has the Broncos’ number. Outside of the matchup from Western Michigan’s 2016 Cotton Bowl season, the Huskies have emerged on top every year since 2009. Northern Illinois currently claims the bragging rights, having beaten the Broncos 35-31 in DeKalb last November.

Prediction

This game is perfect timing for both teams in a way.

Northern Illinois needs to face a weak defense to rise out of this offensive slump. Meanwhile, Western Michigan needs to face a struggling offense to end this defensive misery. But only one team can come on top Saturday.

That team will likely be the MAC West champion Huskies, who will revert to the team we saw play Toledo two Wednesday nights ago. In NIU’s most complete win of the year, the Huskies dominated the Rockets on every front, winning the battles on offense, defense, and special teams. Harbison and Jones will be able to inflate their rushing numbers against Western Michigan’s defense Tuesday night, allowing the Huskies to enjoy the precious first downs they were deprived of a week ago.

Western Michigan’s struggling offensive line won’t be the best match for Northern Illinois’ defensive front four. With a freshman quarterback in the backfield, who has already taken nearly double the sacks Wassink took in games 1-8, the most sack-heavy team in the country could easily gain an advantage in the trenches, forcing Western Michigan to resort to the long ball.

Huskies win by two possessions, sending Western Michigan its fourth-straight loss and second-consecutive 6-6 regular season finish. If this result comes to fruition, Broncos fans will be nervously refreshing bowl projections on December 2, hoping to not be excluded from the picture like they were in 2017.

Prediction: Northern Illinois 27, Western Michigan 17