In the MAC, the college football season arises with a non-conference slate and winds down with a series of bowl games against foes from other leagues. Excluding conference-play sandwiched in the middle, the MAC teams held 54 opportunities to assert themselves and upend opponents from other leagues, ranging from Week 1 kickoffs to late-December bowl games.
The conference finished 19-35 in out-of-conference matchups. While the MAC won all 10 of its FCS games, its teams only fared 9-35 against the rest of the FBS. A non-conference win in the MAC signified a new tradition in 2018 — the hoisting of the MAC Jolly Roger flag, issued by the conference’s commissioner.
Power Five teams fell as victims in three of the MAC’s nine non-conference triumphs. Purdue (Eastern Michigan), Rutgers (Buffalo), and Northwestern (Akron) all suffered home losses in Big Ten country early in the season, making way the Jolly Roger to fly.
Without further ado, here are the top 10 non-conference bouts of 2018 MAC football, ranked by the thrill factor of the contest.
10. Syracuse 55, Western Michigan 42
August 31, 2018 — Waldo Stadium, Kalamazoo, MI
What a way to open the season. One thing we didn’t know at the time was that Syracuse — who hadn’t participated in a bowl since 2013 — was a 10-win program, good for No. 15 in the country at the conclusion of the year.
The first half of this game was a snooze fest. The Broncos entered halftime getting decimated, 34-7, to the typical-ACC bottom feeder.
After Eric Dungey and Co. dominated Western Michigan for 30 minutes, Syracuse opened the second half with a fumble on its first play from scrimmage. The Broncos answered with a 21-yard touchdown pass from Jon Wassink to wideout D’Wayne Eskridge, who finished with a career day with 240 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
Eskridge would strike again several drives later, burning the Syracuse secondary on an 84-yard streak route touchdown. A three-and-out passed and Western Michigan’s big-play offense hit yet another grand slam. This time, LeVante Bellamy sprinted past the Orange for a 64-yard score. All of a sudden, Waldo’s scoreboard read 34-28.
Western Michigan forced another defensive stop, but a face mask on 3rd-and-long extended the Syracuse drive, leading to an acrobatic Jamal Custis touchdown catch on the ensuing play. With the offense en fuego, Wassink powered in for six, immediately after hitting Eskridge on a 59-yard bomb.
Unfortunately, the Broncos’ defense never held firm after the face mask penalty and Syracuse continued their offensive domination. An interception prevented Western Michigan from ever completing the comeback or getting the ball down one score, but it was one heck of an offensive showdown.
The teams combined for 1,181 yards and 97 points. Wassink passed for 379, Bellamy ran for 120, Eskridge had 240 receiving. In the winning effort, Dungey picked up 200 on the ground and Custis finished with 168 receiving yards.
9. Utah 17, Northern Illinois 6
September 8, 2018 — Huskie Stadium, DeKalb, IL
This one cracks the top 10 because Northern Illinois ended up one ill-fated mistake away from knocking off the Pac-12 South champion.
On a 1st-and-10 with under three minutes remaining, Marcus Childers attempted a bullet pass on an inside slant to Jauan Wesley. Instead, the route was jumped and seconds later, the Utes put the one-score game out of reach.
But this was a winnable game for the Huskies, despite the fact they didn’t score a single touchdown. Eight punts and two fourth quarter turnovers certainly didn’t help NIU’s cause, but it was interesting to see the team go wire-to-wire with one of college football’s most consistent winners.
This game is the complete opposite of #10 on this list, but with a win, the Huskies would have sported a remarkable 2-2 against a brutal non-conference schedule. After witnessing the impact of home field advantage, NIU should try to persuade more Power Five teams to visit DeKalb on home-and-homes.
8. San Diego State 23, Eastern Michigan 20
September 22, 2018 — SDCCU Stadium, San Diego, CA
If you missed this evenly-matched, low-scoring overtime finish, you were either a) sleeping or b) without CBS Sports Network.
The regulation period was a microcosm of San Diego State’s season. The Aztecs looked poised to run away with an easy victory, leading 17-3 after two touchdown passes from backup quarterback Ryan Agnew. But a 74-second drive by Mike Glass and the Eagles right before halftime closed the Aztecs’ lead to seven.
Receiving the ball at halftime, Eastern Michigan dragged out a 7-minute drive, and decided to abruptly finish the grueling possession with a 37-yard bomb to Arthur Jackson III. Tie game.
Following a rare miss from San Diego State kicker John Baron II, the Eagles leaped to a 20-17 lead on a Chad Ryland field goal. The field goal seemed like a win for the Aztecs, as the Eagles were previously situated with a 1st-and-goal on the 8-yard line.
A short kickoff granted Rocky Long’s team favorable field position on its final meaningful drive of regulation. The Aztec offense only gained 25 yards on this sequence, but it was enough to set up a 50-yard field goal by Baron. Unlike the 35-yard attempt, this one sailed through the uprights.
Eastern Michigan decided to run the ball on the final drive and play for overtime, but overtime didn’t turn out like the Eagles envisioned. Glass threw an interception and Baron’s leg won it on a 38-yard field goal.
7. Northern Illinois 7, BYU 6
October 27, 2018 — LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo, UT
This was OUR Cheez-It Bowl. This is the beautiful type of game that will start conversations at bars 15 years from now, and we’ll all remember where we were when watching this masterpiece. If this was an NCAA 14 game, the “Game Score” probably didn’t exceed 40, but it definitely registered as an ESPN Instant Classic.
BYU kicked a field goal with 3:08 left in the first quarter to lead 3-0 at halftime. Then, Rod Carey must have given the halftime speech of his life, because the dormant offense suddenly burst out of the tunnel and anchored a 10-play, 65-yard drive to score the game-winning touchdown. Yes, Marcus Childers’ 1-yard rushing touchdown — set up by a defensive holding in the end zone on the prior play — won the game for NIU. And we still had over 11 minutes left in the third quarter.
The Huskies’ defense came up with clutch stops by their own goal line and BYU’s Skyler Southam sunk an 11-yard field goal to close the margin to one point. Lots of punts happened and Southam attempted a 51-yard field goal for the lead, but no dice.
NIU just had to rely on its stout defense to make stops, and the unit delivered. With 1:47 left, BYU quarterback Zach Wilson threw an interception to Mykelti Williams across the middle of the field, sealing the road upset for the eventual MAC champs.
16 punts, 715 total punting yards, and the QB ratings were 18.4 and 25.9. Defense wins championships... and road games at BYU, folks.
6. Cincinnati 34, Ohio 30
September 22, 2018 — Nippert Stadium, Cincinnati, OH
A.J. Ouellette, 9-yard touchdown run. Maleek Irons, 12-yard touchdown reception. Nathan Rourke, 3-yard touchdown run.
After a series of rapid-fire touchdowns, it was 21-0, 100% Ohio domination on a Saturday morning at Nippert Stadium. The Bearcats were fresh off back-to-back 4-8 seasons while the Bobcats were heralded as preseason favorites in the MAC. A blowout looked to be brewing in Skyline Chili country.
Cincinnati erased the shutout on a Michael Warren touchdown run with under six minutes before halftime. But a Louie Zervos field goal, which could have easily been a touchdown considering Ohio had 1st-and-goal on the 3, boosted the Bobcats’ lead back up to three scores, 24-7.
Ohio had Cincinnati pinned at 3rd-and-12 to start the second half. That’s when Rashad Medaris got an extra step ahead of Kylan Nelson for an easy 77-yard touchdown reception. Suddenly, Luke Fickell and the Bearcats looked ready to compete.
The Bobcats showered the scoreboard with some points, but it was a field goal after another squandered 1st-and-goal opportunity. Leading 27-14, a Papi White fumble in Ohio territory breathed new life into Cincinnati. Quarterback Desmond Ridder rushed for a Cincy touchdown, and the Bearcats transformed a 21-0 deficit into a one-score game.
Louie Zervos connected on a lengthy field goal attempt, but the Bearcats were scoring touchdowns to counter Ohio’s field goals. Ridder completed a 26-yard touchdown pass, his second of the day, with over 12 minutes left in the contest. With plenty of clock remaining, Cincinnati’s elite defense forced a punt and Ridder led a 13-play, 92-yard drive — capped by a Warren touchdown run — to secure the first lead of the day for his team.
Despite blowing a 21-0 lead, victory was still in reach for Ohio. Rourke ran 37 yards to set the Bobcats up in Cincinnati territory. With another 1st-and-goal opportunity and 100 seconds left, Ohio’s offense to punch it in two yards for a probable victory. However, A.J. Ouellette back-tracked three yards on second down, and Rourke was picked off before the end zone on a game-ending interception with 52 seconds left.
5. Buffalo 36, Temple 29
September 8, 2018 — Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, PA
Looking back on the 2018 college football season, this is the MAC’s second-most impressive non-conference victory. The Owls made drastic changes after this contest, including a quarterback depth chart switch from Frank Nutile to Anthony Russo, but beating Temple on the road is still beating Temple on the road.
The Owls, winners of 8-of-11 games after this contest, played from behind nearly the entire day. Tyree Jackson launched a touchdown pass and Kevin Marks ran 35 yards for another score to provide Buffalo a 12-0 lead (missed extra point and 2-point try). Temple bested Buffalo’s start with two Nutile touchdown passes to lead 14-12. But the Owls’ triumph was short-lived.
Following Marks’ second touchdown, Buffalo never trailed once again, but Temple clawed back in a bizarre manner. The Owls rejected a Bulls punt and recovered it in the end zone for six, and then they converted a 2-point conversion on a wild trick-play. A reverse to wide receiver Ventell Bryant ended up turning into a pass last second, and Bryant’s 2-point completion tied the game at 22 apiece.
The deadlock was broken with 7:43 left when Jackson found Antonio Nunn in the end zone. Next time Jackson touched the ball, he maneuvered down the field on a 10-play, 81-yard sequence. With 59 seconds on the clock facing a 3rd-and-10, Jackson found Mr. Reliable, Anthony Johnson across the middle. The First Team All-MAC honoree slid past contact from several defenders and walked into the end zone for a 29-yard touchdown. A strip sack forced by Chuck Harris locked up a Buffalo victory and a 2-0 start for Lance Leipold’s Bulls.
4. Georgia Southern 23, Eastern Michigan 21
December 15, 2018 — Cramton Bowl, Montgomery, AL
The next two games involve time-expiring field goals. One benefits Eastern Michigan, one does not benefit Eastern Michigan. We’ll start with the worse memory for the Eagles, albeit from a fantastic bowl game.
On the first day of bowl season, Eastern Michigan gave to me... a not-so great first half in the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl. The Eagles, who struggled against Army’s triple option attack, looked dumbfounded trying to contain Georgia Southern quarterback Shai Werts at first. The option master sprinted for a 26-yard touchdown on his team’s second possession of the game. Eastern Michigan managed to tie it at 7-7, but Werts obtained touchdown run #2 after running back Wesley Kennedy pushed Georgia Southern deep into EMU territory. As time expired in the first half, Tyler Bass nailed a 50-yard field goal, and it was 17-7.
Mike Glass III connected with Arthur Jackson III for the third total touchdown of the evening. A string of five-consecutive possessions resulted in punts, progressing the game quickly while the score remained stable. Bass broke the period of nothingness by sinking another field goal to extend Georgia Southern’s lead to 20-14.
But if there’s anything Eastern Michigan knows about clock management, it knows how to eat it up. The Eagles drove 75 yards in 16 plays, disposing of over six minutes of game time. Chris Creighton’s squad converted three third downs on the possession, but failed on the final one. Instead, Eastern Michigan gambled on fourth down from the 5-yard line. Glass completed a pass to Jackson in the end zone for Eastern Michigan’s first lead, 21-20.
Eastern Michigan forced a 4th-and-10 on Georgia Southern’s last resort. But instead of a potential game-winning stop, Werts scrambled for a 29-yard gain to permeate into field goal range. Bass sank Eastern Michigan’s comeback bid with a 40-yard field goal as time expired, in a very emotional moment for Georgia Southern players and coaches alike.
3. Eastern Michigan 20, Purdue 19
September 8, 2018 — Ross-Ade Stadium, West Lafayette, IN
The transitive property of inequality would suggest that if Eastern Michigan is greater than Purdue, and Purdue is 29 points greater than Ohio State... well, you know the rest.
Ross-Ade Stadium wasn’t kind to the Buckeyes, who finished at No. 3 in the AP Poll with one loss. But Eastern Michigan had no problem storming into the train station for its second Big Ten win in program history and second in two years.
A 75-yard touchdown pass from Iowa transfer Tyler Wiegers to Mathew Sexton set the tone early, establishing a 7-3 lead for the visiting Eagles. One field goal and a Purdue touchdown later, the Boilermakers regained a 12-7 lead in front of their home fans (Purdue missed a 2-point conversion, and it ended up mattering). At the halftime buzzer, eventual hero Chad Ryland drained a 27-yard chip shot to enter the break down two points to the Jeff Brohm’s Boilermakers.
Maxx Crosby, Kyle Rachwal, and the Eastern Michigan defense continued to limit Purdue’s quarterback duo, who completed just 58.3% of pass attempts. Star freshman playmaker Rondale Moore, who set a program record for all-purpose yards in his Week 1 debut, was held to 65 yards from scrimmage. Purdue didn’t score a single point in the third quarter — a recipe for disaster for the favored Boilermakers.
The Eagles recorded the go-ahead touchdown around the 8-minute mark in the fourth quarter, but all of that progress was eradicated seconds later on a 45-yard D.J. Knox touchdown run. Trailing 19-17, it was Wiegers’ time to lead the gang from Ypsilanti on a game-winning drive. Instead, he tossed an interception and Purdue took control at the EMU 20. A valiant effort by the Eagles’ defense forced a 38-yard field goal, which Spencer Evans missed.
With a breath of fresh air injected into the Eagles and five minutes to operate, Wiegers went back to work. Slow and steady, Eastern Michigan navigated down the field at Ross-Ade, running the clock out with Ian Eriksen upon reaching field goal range. On 3rd-and-goal at the Purdue 7, it was Chad Ryland heroics time. A 24-yard field goal try split the center of the uprights and the rest was history. Eastern Michigan defeated Purdue on the road and flew the flag in West Lafayette.
This game is basically the same as the Camellia Bowl, but with the Eastern Michigan role flipped.
2. Army 31, Miami (OH) 30
October 20, 2018 — Michie Stadium, West Point, NY
Just like in 2016, Miami (OH) turned the corner at midseason. This may have been a loss for Chuck Martin and the RedHawks, but it was a tough-fought road defeat to the 19th-best team in the country.
Until five minutes remained in the contest, it appeared Army, up 21-7, would run away with a simple, defensive-oriented victory. On a 4th-and-9 with under five to go, Miami quarterback Gus Ragland completed a do-or-die pass to advance to the Army 3. On the following play, Ragland dumped it to wide receiver Dominique Robinson for six.
A three-and-out by Army, slowed by strategically-saved timeouts, provided Miami with a drive to tie it up. The RedHawks’ overcame adversity by converting a 4th-and-3 at midfield. But Miami faced another 4th down, from the Army 5, with 17 seconds left. Ragland threaded the needle to find tight end Nate Becker in the end zone in a clutch finish. Following the dramatic comeback, Martin elected to kick and send the game into overtime instead of go for the win.
Both teams traded field goals in first overtime, and Army was due up to start second overtime. Fullback Darnell Woolfolk ran the ball in for a 7-yard touchdown, forcing Miami to match. The RedHawks’ offense struggled to progress, but on 4th-and-15, Ragland somehow lobbed it up to Luke Mayock in the end zone for an 18-yard touchdown.
Testing its luck, Miami rolled the dice for the win, but the 2-point try was instantly stymied by Army’s pass rush. Gus Ragland side-armed a throw to running back Kenny Young before Army completed the sack, and Young had plenty of daylight to run. If not for a big hit the Black Knights delivered at the 2-yard line, Young may have plunged into the end zone for victory. The RedHawks were as close as can be, and it took numerous fourth down conversions to nearly complete one of the most impressive comebacks of the season.
1. Akron 39, Northwestern 34
September 15, 2018 — Ryan Field, Evanston, IL
Sometimes you look back at an early-season score and wonder, “how on earth did that happen?”
Akron finished 4-8 and head coach Terry Bowden was fired after the season. Northwestern ended up at No. 21 in the final AP Poll, crowned Big Ten West champions and Holiday Bowl champions with a definitive 31-20 win over Utah.
When the two contrasting programs collided at Ryan Field on a clear-skies night in Evanston, the inexplicable happened. Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin, who retired after the game due to an unfortunate medical condition, commenced the Wildcat domination with two touchdowns. Akron notched a field goal to trail 14-3, but a 31-second Northwestern touchdown drive widened the gap to 21-3. At halftime, up 18, Northwestern’s win probability was 98.5% according to ESPN.
Akron opened the third quarter with a field goal and then scored its initial touchdown of the night on a 25-yard pass from Kato Nelson to Andre Williams. With a 21-13 lead, Northwestern’s offense rushed right down the field, until a critical 4th-and-3 arrived.
Akron cornerback Alvin Davis stood behind the overthrown Wildcat receiver, secured Thorson’s misfire, and sprinted down the left sideline for a 97-yard touchdown. The Zips’ 2-point attempt failed and Northwestern preserved a 21-19 lead despite a trio of third quarter Akron scores.
Wildcats’ quarterback Clayton Thorson made amends, and Northwestern regained a two-possession lead on a touchdown pass to Cameron Green. Akron bit back on a 2-play, 75-yard drive though, and the apparent blowout evolved into a competitive shootout. At 28-26 in the opening minutes of the final quarter, Northwestern missed a 43-yard field goal. But Akron’s offense ran out of gas and couldn’t pull off another quick score to take the lead.
Instead, the defense returned with a vengeance. Akron sacked Thorson, forcing a fumble which rolled toward the end zone. After initially pouncing on it, the ball headed toward the back line, until outside linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III heroically landed on it for a touchdown.
Down 32-28, Northwestern’s offense was faced with pressure after Akron constructed a 29-7 run. Once again, Thorson found his least-favorite target: Davis. Davis returned this pick-six 50 yards to reverse the outlook of the game. Thanks to its star cornerback, Akron suddenly led by 11.
Thorson and his troops scored quickly but were unable to recover the onside kick. Northwestern would be granted one more attempt to win, situated 30 yards from glory. Thorson’s Hail Mary was batted down before the end zone, and Akron won its first Big Ten game since the 1894 team (known as Buchtel College), coached by John Heisman, bested Ohio State.
Considering Northwestern’s status as Big Ten title game participant and a ranked program, the fact that 4-8 Akron dumped 36 second half points and three defensive touchdowns in a span of eight minutes of clock time, and Akron’s minuscule win probability, this is an upset for the ages.