The Western Michigan Broncos (4-6, 3-3 MAC) and the Northern Illinois Huskies (4-6, 3-3 MAC) are facing off in DeKalb, Illinois this Tuesday with a potential bowl game on the line. With both teams sitting at 4-6, winning out is a necessity in order to go bowling, so this game promises to get real tense real late.
Western Michigan is riding high after picking up wins against MAC West foes Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan in the last two weeks. The offense has been a high point this season and combined for 83 points in the wins. Being able to hope for a bowl game in week 12 is already a win for this team, who was considered to be a bottom-feeder by most preseason expectations, but being two wins away from the postseason will surely be very motivating.
Northern Illinois, meanwhile, has lost their last two games to Central Michigan and Ball State, and fan angst at a level not often seen from DeKalb has come to the surface for Huskie fans. Northern Illinois gave the ball away three times in each loss and probably should have won both games. The last fumble against Ball State gave them the field position they needed to break the tie and win on a last-second field goal, while their fumbles vs. CMU dug them an early hole they had to play their way out of— before committing another turnover to seal it.
The Broncos and Huskies played for trophies last week and will face each other Tuesday. The Huskies are down but can try to salvage their season with a win and a possible bowl game and the Broncos want to capitalize on their momentum.
Who has the edge? Let's get into it!
- Time and date: Tuesday, November 14th, 2023 at 7:00 p.m. Eastern time
- Location: Huskie Stadium in Dekalb, Illinois
- Network: ESPNU (A valid cable subscription is required.)
- Gambling considerations: Northern Illinois is favored by 3.5 points, and the over/under is set at 56.5, per DraftKings.
- All-time series: Western Michigan leads the all-time series 27-21 over Northern Illinois. The Broncos are 4-3 in the last seven meetings, but dropped seven straight from 2009 to 2015.
- Last meeting: Northern Illinois won a back-and-forth game on a touchdown run in the final minute of the game. A Western Michigan defensive touchdown was taken off the board during the game-winning drive due to a penalty and a WMU win could have gotten them to a bowl game.
When Western Michigan has the ball:
The Broncos have an exciting offense and that hasn’t been true since early in the 2021 season. Former Old Dominion transfer QB Hayden Wolff is distributing the ball from the pocket, and former walk-on running back Jalen Buckley is finding lanes and the offensive line is allowing it all to happen.
The offensive line has a favorable matchup this week on the ground and the combination of Buckley and Zahir Abdus-Salaam should have a productive game. The offensive line has an edge in line yards, a metric that attributes a portion of the rushing yards to the offensive line, and power success. The Broncos like to stay on schedule and ahead of the chains, welcoming third and short situations.
Lance Taylor and Billy Cosh have been aggressive in third-and-short situations and view them as two plays to pick up a first down. They avoid negative plays for two reasons, the linemen are not getting beat at the point of attack and the running backs are moving forward with the ball at all times.
Wolff was protected very well against Central Michigan, but the Huskies defensive end George Gumbs will try to change that. He leads NIU with 3.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles-for-loss.
Northern Illinois has been solid defensively and has the edge in most passing metrics, but most of the WMU passing game is an extension of the running game. The Broncos have found that Kenneth Womack is comfortable with the ball in his hands and gets him easy completions near the line of scrimmage. He’s not the only target Wolff has, but he leads the MAC in receptions by 22 catches, so he’ll certainly get his touches. Leroy Thomas, Blake Bosma, Austin Hence and Anthony Sambucci have each had an impact in the passing game with fewer catches.
In the defensive backend, cornerback Javaughn Byrd has two interceptions and four passes broken up. Safety Nate Valcarcel has three interceptions and is tied for third in the MAC. They apply pressure by committee from the front seven with Devonte O’Malley and Roy Williams with three sacks a piece.
The Huskies keep opposing offenses in front of them, which doomed Central Michigan a week ago. The Broncos used two long touchdowns to tie the game and take the lead in the fourth quarter. The advanced stats say they shouldn’t be able to do that against the NIU defense.
The Huskies will tip the scales in their favor by forcing as many passing downs as they can and getting off the field. Both teams are good in the redzone and will create a critical matchup in this game. Touchdowns win games and if NIU can force WMU to attempt field goals, that will be a win.
When Northern Illinois has the ball:
No matter how clear the advanced stats get, any game can break trends. It’s the folly of writing a preview centered around them.
This side of the game is not clear at all.
Northern Illinois holds significant advantages in line yards and success rate on standard downs. Western Michigan has an edge in its ability to create havoc and passing down success rate. Everything else is a soup.
In these situations, it often comes down to the playmakers and NIU has one in Antario Brown. He has the second-most rushing yards of any player in the MAC this season, only behind Peny Boone. Brown is a physical runner who can bust through the line and be off to the races.
The Bronco front seven is going to have their hands full getting him to the ground. They will probably walk their safeties toward the line of scrimmage to keep him contained. Aaron Wofford and Tate Hallock lead the Broncos in tackles from the safety position, which should tell you how often they encourage them to stop the run aggressively.
If those two get sucked into stopping the run too often, the Huskies will go over the top to Trayvon Rudolph. He came back from an injury sustained last season and has come on the last three weeks. His previous season high in catches was four against Toledo, and two weeks ago he terrorized the Central Michigan secondary for eight catches and 170 yards. He’s second in the MAC in touch percentage among non-running backs.
The Huskies also have a do-it-all back in Gavin Williams, who has 60 rushes and 21 receptions so far this season. The 21 receptions is second on the team out of the backfield. He’s not as explosive as Brown, but he still averages five yards per carry.
Cornerbacks Keni-H Lovely and Kone Bilhal each forced a turnover in last week's game against Central Michigan, which has been a problem for the Huskies recently. Lovely forced a fumble that the Broncos turned into a touchdown on the next drive and Bilhal intercepted a pass that ended the game.
Four fumbles in two games plus an interception have turned into 17 points on the next drive for their opponents in losses were a combined nine points. There is a fifth fumble, but it was during a last-second pitch-a-palooza play. If they give away points or possessions in another coin-flip game, they are going to be upset with the way the game plays out.
This prediction comes down to vibes. I think that NIU could be the second most talented team in the MAC West. That hasn’t mattered the last two weeks and now it feels like the season is about to get away from the Huskies, if it hasn’t already.
The Broncos have the offense to cause problems for the Huskies' defense, even if it is one of the best in the MAC. As distractions mount around the NIU program after two losses, one in a rivalry game, the offense flashes but can’t maintain a high level of play. The Bronco defense has been better recently but Antario Brown and Trayvon Rudolph are dangerous.
I’m not going to overthink this, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s my downfall. Make it:
Western Michigan 28
Northern Illinois 24