Seven games in the books.
We’re just trucking along in the 2023 MAC season, and we’re getting a clearer picture of what teams might be in contention for Detroit. As far as bowl eligibility, two teams already can claim it, as Miami (OH) and Toledo took down Western Michigan and Ball State, respectively, to sustain their 6-game win streaks into late October. On the other end of bowl eligibility, three teams were pushed to the brink. Akron, Ball State, Kent State are three of 10 teams yet to defeat an FBS opponent this year, and all sport undesirable 1-6 records.
There was a lot to take away from Week 7 of MACtion, with Northern Illinois’ momentous 23-13 upset over Ohio serving as the weekend’s headliner. Here are three thoughts from Saturday’s loaded slate:
Northern Illinois flipped the switch
No MAC team could capitalize on a redo of the first four weeks of the season more than Northern Illinois. The Huskies featured a dismal 1-4 record several weeks ago, burdened by an inexcusable 14-11 loss to Southern Illinois of the FCS, and the season looked headed toward a similar trajectory as last year’s disappointing 3-9 campaign. But just two weeks later, this same team looks like a bona fide MAC contender.
Northern Illinois is two years removed from a MAC championship — with a bevy of contributors from that 2021 team and loads of All-MAC talent lurking within the roster. And since the dawn of October, the Huskies have looked like that team once again. NIU throttled Akron 55-14 in a road contest on Oct. 7 — absolutely eviscerating a 1-6 Zips team, which has seen four one-score losses this year. One week after attaining the MAC’s first 40-point win of the year against FBS competition, the Huskies managed to one-up themselves. They hosted a red hot Ohio team riding a 5-game win streak and dismantled the Bobcats 23-13 in DeKalb.
For the second week in a row, Northern Illinois’ defense clicked on all cylinders. They limited Ohio to 4.4 yards per pass and 3.7 yards per rush and forced three three-and-outs against a Bobcat offense which averaged 40 points per game in its first two MAC outings. In the fourth quarter, NIU prevented any chance of a comeback by registering interceptions on three consecutive possessions, denying Ohio of its sixth-straight victory.
Offensively, NIU is finding its groove too. After failing to break 14 points in Weeks 2 through 4, the Huskies dropped 33 points on Toledo, 55 on Akron, and 23 on an Ohio squad which allowed 11.8 points per game in its first six matchups — never surrendering more than 20 until Saturday. Quarterback Rocky Lombardi has tossed five touchdown passes without an interception in his past three games, completing attempts at a 67 percent clip. Antario Brown is running the ball like a man possessed, racking up 466 yards and four touchdowns in that 3-game span. Combine that with defensive improvement, and NIU is not a team any MAC contender wants to run into at the moment.
Eastern Michigan is going to muck up every game
“The Factory” is the perfect setting to embody the 2023 Eastern Michigan Eagles. Factory work isn’t always glamorous. And sometimes, it’s borderline dangerous. But if done properly, the result is a finished product that workers can be proud of. And that’s exactly what has transpired in Ypsilanti, MI this season as Eastern Michigan gathers its wrenches and hammers and finds non-glamorous ways to win football games, more often than not.
If you’re into watching explosive, high-energy offenses Washington Huskies or Oklahoma Sooners, Eastern Michigan football may not be for you. But there’s different formulas to winning football games. The Eagles have played six games against FBS competition this year. Not a single one involved either Eastern Michigan or its opponent scoring more than 28 points. Chris Creighton’s team averages 19 points per game, which is tied for 11th worst in the country, but conversely, they stifle challengers to 19.4 points per game, good for 28th in the country.
Eastern Michigan defeated Kent State 28-14 on Saturday in a game which featured 14 three-and-outs, eight which belonged to the victorious Eagles. This team averages 3.3 three-and-outs per game, but makes up for the lack of offensive execution with takeaways and special teams playmaking. The Eagles scored their third special teams touchdown of the year in the opening seconds of the Kent State game, with Kendric Nowling fielding an onside kickoff 44 yards for an immediate 7-0 lead. And they snatched three fumble recoveries from Kent State to increase their turnover output to 12 on the season — featuring the MAC’s top turnover margin at a +5.
Eastern Michigan wields the seventh-worst passing offense in the country. But what this team is gonna do on a weekly basis is pound the rock, win the field position battle courtesy of punter and multi-time MAC Special Teams Player of the Week honoree Mitchell Tomasek, and create havoc plays with a relentless defense. This recipe worked once again Saturday against Kent State, and now Eastern Michigan is 4-3 on the season and 2-1 in MAC play, on track for its fifth bowl appearance in six years.
Toledo can always take Peny to the bank
First of all, Toledo needs to stop playing with its food. The Rockets are 6-1 and winners of six straight as definitive favorites in the MAC West — especially due to earning tiebreaker over Northern Illinois. But Toledo is winning games as double-digit favorites far too close for comfort — which can often be a sign of things to come (see: USC Trojans).
This past Saturday, as nearly three-touchdown favorites over Ball State, Toledo only totaled one touchdown as a unit. The Rockets needed a touchdown with 1:31 remaining to break a tie with the now 1-6 Cardinals in order to escape Muncie with a 13-6 victory. Living life dangerously is nothing new for this Toledo team, which fended off Northern Illinois 35-33 two weeks ago after allowing 26 points in the second half alone — and the Huskies nearly entered field goal range for a chance at a win.
Toledo also trailed San Jose State 17-7, Western Michigan 24-14, and UMass 21-17 all in the third quarter. One positive of the Rockets’ narrow win over Ball State was that the defense showed massive strides from these games, but the team needs to show more consistency overall.
However, there’s one consistent player Toledo can always rely on, which has been a formula to winning so many close games. That’s running back Peny Boone who is in the midst of his second season on campus after transferring from Maryland. Boone currently rides a 5-game streak of attaining at least 110 rushing yards — totaling 148, 129, 113, 211, and 123 as the nation’s leading rusher since Week 3. Toledo strung together its only touchdown drive of the afternoon in Muncie by relying on the soon-to-be All-MAC tailback, feeding him three consecutive carries from the Ball State 26-yard line. He wound up in the end zone on the third one, delivering a game-winning touchdown to preserve Toledo’s 6-game win streak.
Now, Boone ranks third in the FBS with 792 rushing yards on the year. His 7.4 yards per run reign supreme among all 87 candidates with more than 75 attempts on the season. While Toledo may not always see the best showing from its passing attack or run defense, the Rockets can assure themselves that every MAC game is winnable as long as they take Peny to the bank.