The Toledo Rockets celebrate their homecoming game this week as they host the Northern Illinois Huskies on Saturday afternoon.
Both teams won their inaugural conference game in 2021, as the Huskies (3-2, 1-0 MAC) defeated EMU last week and the Rockets (3-2, 1-0 MAC) were able to down Ball State on September 25th.
As was the case for most of the 2010s, Toledo and NIU come into this game tied atop the MAC West (with WMU as well) and the winner of this game gets a big leg up moving forward.
When: Saturday, October 9th at noon (11:00 a.m. CST)
Where: The Glass Bowl — Toledo, OH
Weather: Mid 70s and mostly cloudy
Odds: Toledo is favored by 12.5 points and has an 82.9% chance of winning according to ESPN’s FPI
The Huskies (3-2, 1-0 MAC)
Northern continues to be somewhat of an enigma this season. They have looked great at times (i.e. the first half of EMU and second half of Wyoming) but they have also looked real iffy at times as well (i.e. the first half of Wyoming and the Michigan game).
They enter this game netting 377 yards and 28.6 points per game while allowing 419.2 yards and 33.6 points per game.
NIU has leaned on their running game all season long and last week was no exception. The Huskies only had 84 passing yards but ran the ball 55 times for 242 yards with their only two offensive touchdowns coming via the rush.
The Huskies average 220.8 rushing yards per game, which ranks 20th in the NCAA. However, their 156.2 passing yards is 120th in the nation (out of 130 teams).
Harrison Waylee, the workhorse for NIU’s rushing attack, left last week’s game late in the second quarter. He had 87 yards on 13 carries in the first half and, for the season, he has 574 yards and four touchdowns on 101 attempts. As of writing this on Tuesday, I have not seen any official reports on Waylee’s injury but he was seen in a sling on the sidelines during the game and I have seen some unofficial reports saying he might be out for the season, which is huge if true.
With Waylee out, Antario Brown took over in the backfield last week. Brown, in his first collegiate game, had no problems moving the ball as he finished with 101 yards on 16 carries. NIU will also use Clint Ratkovich on the ground and, over the past two contests, quarterback Rocky Lombardi has been using his legs more as well - scoring four rushing TDs and gaining 135 yards on 14 carries.
When Lombardi does throw the ball it has been a little rocky at times (some pun intended). Lombardi is now completing 57% of his passes for 781 yards and but has thrown five interceptions as well as five TDs. Twice this season he has been held to under 85 yards passing (Michigan and EMU) and his QBR has been under 65 in three games - EMU (64.3 out of 100), Michigan (24.0), and Wyoming (44.3).
With Cole Tucker missing last week’s game and being questionable for this week, Tyrice Richie has now taken over as the leader in receiving yards. Richie has 223 yards on 22 grabs but has still yet to find the endzone. Tucker has 206 yards on 12 receptions and a score. Trayvon Rudolph is still third on the team with 125 yards on his eight catches.
On defense Dillon Thomas had a breakout game up front for the Huskies last week as he tallied seven tackles, two sacks, two TFLs, and broke up a pass. Thomas now leads the team in sacks (3) and is tied for first in TFL (4, with Lance Deveaux Jr.) and has a total of 20 tackles.
Eight Huskies have 20 or more stops, with C.J. Brown and Deveaux leading the way with 35 tackles each.
The Jordans in NIU’s secondary have been playing well this season. Safety Jordan Hansen has 30 tackles, three pass breakups, two TFL, and has a forced fumble and QB hurry as well. Cornerback Jordan Gandy leads the team with six pass breakups and has totaled 23 tackles and added two TFL.
The Rockets (3-2, 1-0 MAC)
Toledo looked good to start off the season, beating Norfolk State handily and then nearly upsetting the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. However, they followed up the ND game with a curious loss to Colorado State before bouncing back and winning their last two games against Ball State and former MAC foe, UMass.
The Rockets are averaging 396.8 yards and scoring 30.2 points per game while holding teams to just 16.6 points and 297.2 points per game. Their 16.6 points allowed is best in the MAC and 18th best in the NCAA.
Carter Bradley takes most of the snaps under center for the Rockets but Dequan Finn has seen action in every game as well and has been just as effective as Bradley.
Bradley is connecting on nearly 62% of his throws (69/112) and has 912 yards and four TDs to just one INT. However, he has been sacked 13 times and his QBR has under 40 in four of the five games and under 17 twice.
Finn, in his limited playing time, has attempted 29 passes, completing 19 of those for 192 yards and a TD. He also can run better than Bradley and his 256 rushing yards is second best on the team while his four scores on the ground has him tied for first on the team. Finn has been sacked five times but is able to avoid a lot of the pressure with his speed and agility.
When it’s not Finn running the ball, Bryant Koback is the main guy. Koback has 357 yards on 76 carries (4.7 yards/rush) and has four TDs. Jacquez Stuart has also been a solid back for Toledo, netting 135 yards and a touchdown on his 23 carries.
Four Rockets have caught 10+ passes and have over 100 receiving yards. But leading the way is Devin Maddox, who has team highs in receptions (18), yardage (341) and touchdowns (2). Behind him is Isaiah Winstead, who has 14 grabs and 172 yards. Bryce Mitchell has snagged ten passes for 152 yards and a score while Koback sits in fourth place with 13 receptions, 104 yards, and a TD.
On defense the Rockets are only allowing 126.4 rushing yards (3.4 yards per carry) and have only given up one touchdown on the ground, which does not bode well for NIU’s chances.
They are lead by linebacker Terrance Taylor, who has been a beast all season long. He has 17 tackles has broken up a pass and leads the team in tackles for loss (6), sacks (3), and quarterback hurries (5).
Up front linemen Judge Culpepper and Desjuan Johnson ranked second and third in total tackles. Culpepper has totaled 22 stops, 2 QBH, and has half a sack and half a TFL. Johnson has 21 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, and has forced and recovered a fumble.
Leading the team in tackles is freshman safety Maxen Hook, who has 26 stops, a TFL, and a pass breakup. However, Samuel Womack has been the most dangerous players to throw at. Womack is tied for the team lead in pass breakups (3), has recovered a fumble, and has one of just three Rocket interceptions.
The Rocket defense should be able stop the Huskie ground game some and force Lombardi to throw the ball more. If that happens, NIU might be in for a long game.
Toledo’s passing attack looks like it could work well against the porous Huskie defense. However, the Toledo QBs have shown they are prone to taking sacks and, if the Huskies can get some pressure on Bradley or Finn, the defense might be able to keep NIU in the game.
I think the Huskies can cover the spread but the Rockets, with a better offense and tough run defense, should win this game.
NIU - 24
Toledo - 34