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Ye Olde Roundtable: Reviewing 2023 Week 1’s action

We gather back ‘round to discuss the week that was in an opening week filled with mystery.

James H, Jimenez

Welcome back to Ye Olde Roundtable! Feels nice to say that for a week that isn’t the opener.

Last year was tough for us to find a concensus of writers to contribute weekly, so we took a bit of a hiatus, but we’re in a healthier spot now, so we’re here to talk about the week that was! Myself, Drew, Keith and Alexis will contribute our opinions regarding the MAC every week, taking pulse of the players and teams as it goes.

We hope you look forward to what we have to say!

This week was full of surprises and storylines, with NIU flying tge flag, Toledo being less than two minutes away from a program-defining victory, BGSU having a shocker on the road, and more.

Without further ado: let’s get into it:

Toledo just couldn’t hold on in a 30-28 loss to Illinois on Saturday, effectively costing the Rockets a chance at their first win vs. a Big Ten opponent since 2010. What were your takeaways from the result?

James H. Jimenez: I initially wanted to say that this was a Certified Toledo Moment(tm), but as I sat back and reflected on the game as a whole, I don’t think this falls under Jason Candle’s tradition of losing the close game. Those are typically due to time management or playcall malfeasance, neither of which really applies to this game. The Rockets did everything they needed to do to win, but two big plays ultimately sunk them: 1) the Miles Brown pick-six right after Toledo took a 19-7 lead in the third quarter and 2) the fourth-and-four conversion by Luke Altmyer to Casey Washington at game’s end. Toledo was the better team for much of this game, and this result doesn’t change their outlook very much, if at all. If anything, I’d say it crystallized the consensus.

Keith Gregorski: This one really stings because it felt like Toledo really could have come away with a quality road win. I’m not a huge fan of moral victories but I was impressed with how Rockets battled in the second half when Illinois took a 27-19 lead after scoring 20 straight points. Toledo could have folded but they rebounded and almost got the win.

Drew Pearson: Illinois under Bret Bielema isn’t the Big Ten bottom-dweller they have been in the past. My opinion that Toledo is a good team isn’t changed by the result but it stings. The 33-yard fourth-down conversion is a backbreaker, but the game was really lost when Toledo couldn’t score a touchdown after getting a first down inside the 15 twice. If either, or both, ended in the endzone Toledo wins this game.

Alexis Baker: I can’t tell if I overestimated Toledo, underestimated Illinois, or (most likely) a combination of both. I don’t know. I get extremely weird feelings about this season, and I don’t think Saturday is an accurate sample of any program’s play. It’s just getting started, and we better get ready for whatever comes next. I thought Toledo represented the MAC’s best opportunity to take down a B1G opponent, but I completely overlooked Eastern Michigan playing Minnesota, who needed a last second field goal to beat Nebraska. I really, really don’t know the trends for any MAC teams anymore. All my preseason predictions are out the window by Week 2. What a marvelous, terrifying season this is going to be.

The MAC got to fly the flag at least once this week, with NIU taking down Boston College on the road in overtime, holding off a late Eagles rally to do so. Are the Huskies back?

James: I’m going to hold off on declaring NIU “back”, as there are still some very clear issues they have to get past in order to be truly dominant (their passing offense in particular was especially brutal), but that doesn’t take away from what they accomplished. They had their way with a bad BC team for most of the contest, and didn’t make a lot of backbreaking mistakes. If they can continue to choke the air our of the football and force opponents to play off-schedule, they’ve got a chance at making a run in a wide-open MAC.

Keith: I’d say the jury is still out on NIU. Good start with a road win for the Huskies, but the Eagles came into the contest off of a 3-9 season in 2022 and looked like that record at times. I’d say one really encouraging part is NIU won while there is room to grow as Rocky Lombardi completed less than 50 percent of his passes while wideout Trayvon Rudolph had only two catches for 14 yards.

Drew: Maybe. I lean toward them being a top-end team in the MAC West but their inconsistency year to year makes them a hard read. Rocky Lombardi and Trayvon Rudolph are healthy now and provide a punch to their offense. They looked like a competent team on Saturday, but Boston College is bad. Really bad. Like, Holy Cross might beat them on Saturday bad.

Alexis: Let’s pump the brakes on any ‘back’ talk. A good Tier 2 program taking down a really, really bad Tier 1 program is, theoretically, expected by the math. Northern Illinois is still a classic overachiever and time will tell if they can actually play up to an 8-or-9 win season this year, rather than getting there through what one might call “actual” improvement.

Outside of those two contests, which of the MAC games from Week 1 were the most surprising or shocking to you?

James: Buffalo vs. Wisconsin. I didn’t think Buffalo had it in them like that to keep the contest as close as they did for as long as they did, but that defense was tuned in extremely early and forced Wisconsin to pull out the “bigger than you” card mighty early in what was supposed to be the debut of Luke Fickell’s high-flying passing offense. I’m curious if Buffalo can build upon that moving forward.

Keith: Bowling Green’s five interceptions in a 34-24 loss to Liberty. Missouri transfer QB Connor Bazelak has around 1,100 career pass attempts and in his first game as a Falcon completes 6-of-21 passes with three interceptions. Liberty showed last year in the bowl game against Toledo that they are a good team, but I was expecting a better start for the BG offense. Also, I was hoping to see BG move beyond that problem they have seemingly every year for a while now that there is a game or two where they dig a giant hole owing to a series of self-inflicted wounds.

Drew: I wasn’t too surprised by any result this week but the way Eastern Michigan against Howard unfolded was surprising to me. When I saw the Eagles up 30-6 with ten minutes left in the second quarter, the result seemed in hand. No need to pay attention. At the end of the third quarter, it was a one-score game and it’s not crazy for teams to not know how to stop the bleeding in those situations. It ended well for Eastern Michigan but it was tense for a quarter.

Alexis: Gotta be Buffalo and Wis-can-sin. (My grandfather’s alma mater, Michigan Tech, opens this weekend, so I gotta do something Yooper for Hustle Belt this week.) Wisconsin seems to be the program the pollsters really want to do well, having been ranked going into affairs for this season and last, at almost the exact same spot, only to have a bit of a scare. And this is supposed to be an improved Wisconsin team from last year, with a shiny new offense and everything! Buffalo held them to 38 points, when the power imbalance between these two teams should’ve had them scoring significantly more than that; what’s more, the Bulls put 17 on a pretty staunch Big Ten defense! Certainly nothing to cry about, and Buffalo’s in remarkable position going forward, as Wisconsin’s their last Tier 1 opponent.

Which players stood out to you based on their Week 1 performances? Let’s call it one each on offense and defense.

James: On offense, it has to be Dequan Finn. He went over 300 total yards vs. Illinois, who is considered one of the Big Ten’s best defenses, taking them for 230 passing yards on 20-of-36 passing and 75 yards for three total touchdowns (two passing, one rushing) and nearly had a perfect night before that pick-six.

Defensively, Bryce Houston was the guy who really stood out. Yes, they played Long Island, who isn’t exactly a dynamo, but he dominated them and that’s all you can ask your best players to do against inferior competition. He finished with 11 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, a sack and an interception.

Keith: I agree with James on both. Toledo’s QB Finn is a tough competitor who is a difference maker and almost led his crew to a quality road win with over 300 yards accounted for. Can’t go wrong with Buckley as Drew points out but the level of competition for Finn is the difference for me.

Defensively, Bryce Houston has played like a first-team All-MAC selection or MAC Defensive MVP the first two weeks of this season including last week where he was all over the field.

Drew: Western Michigan found out they can effectively shut down the offense and hand the ball to Jalen Buckley for the second half of their game against Saint Francis. He got 30 carries for 194 yards and a touchdown. The Broncos will still be by committee at running back but Buckley can carry the load.

Ohio linebacker Bryce Houston was everywhere. He was in on 11 total tackles, had a sack, two total tackles for loss and in interception. It was against an FCS opponent but his ability to rush the passer, make plays in the backfield and get his hands up in the passing lane.

Alexis: I know Dequan Finn is gonna be the shoe-in for the offensive side of this, and my fantasy team would certainly agree with that, but I’m gonna go with DJ Irons. Akron really impressed me against Temple; what was required of them was to win, or make it close, against a bad program, and they met that. Irons himself was pretty good! He went for 58.6 percent on his passes with over 200 yards and two touchdowns, an MVP effort by recent Zip standards.

I will, however, go Toledo for the defensive game week ball. Although not as impressive in sheer numbers as Bryce Houston of Ohio, Terrance Taylor had four solo tackles, with three of them for a loss, as well as 1.5 sacks. In fact, Taylor had three of Toledo’s four TFLs, the other coming from Darius Alexander, who also split that second Toledo sack with Taylor. Talk about outsized contributions.

There’s six FCS/MAC matchups that are on the docket this week, which typically doesn’t mean a lot, but there’s lately been a slew of FCS/MAC upsets. Which game do you have your eye on in terms of potential spiciness?

James: There’s actually a handful which intrigue me here, but the one which stands out the most in terms of a potential upset is SIU vs. NIU. The Salukis upset NIU in 2007 the last time these two teams faced off against one another, and they historically play close. Of their last four contests, three of them have come down to just one score. This year’s SIU team is a Top 25 unit, ranking #23 heading into this week’s matchup, and have Nic Baker, one of the FCS’ most accurate quarterbacks. NIU could be coming off a bit of a hangover after defeating Boston College, and have struggled to put away FCS teams in recent years.

Keith: I think this week could actually be a MAC sweep. Bowling Green should rebound from last week and while Buffalo has to be still recovering from that big effort last week versus Wisconsin, the Bulls opponent Fordham is not the offensive juggernaut they were last season. I say Central Michigan could be in trouble against New Hampshire. CMU had a tough opponent defensively last week against Michigan State but the jury is still out early on CMU’s offensive prospects for 2023.

Drew: New Hampshire is the best FCS opponent playing the MAC and Central Michigan is one-dimensional on offense right now. Quarterback Bert Emanuel Jr. played in four games last year, significantly in three and attempted eight passes. He started against Michigan State and threw for 87 yards on 17 attempts. The Spartans are tough but 5.1 yards per attempt is not going to cut it. If the Chippewas can’t figure out how to air the ball out, New Hampshire might be able to figure out how to steal this game. Even if Emanuel Jr. is an incredible runner, that can be contained without the threat to pass.

Alexis: Well, the question was about spiciness, not necessarily an FCS win, so I’ll say all of them. Every one of these games is a test of some kind for the MAC team engaged with them, whether that’s proving they learned from their mistakes last week, or putting the finishing touches on what works for them, or taking all of our expectations yet again and putting them in the garbage disposal. There really is no telling.

Looking at the schedule, there’s three more opportunities for upsets of Power Five opponents. Which one do you see as most likely? Or if not likely, then the one which is most intriguing?

James: I don’t think there will be any upsets, but I do have my eyes on EMU vs. Minnesota, as that’s the last major “B1G/MAC” matchup I think the conference is capable of winning. This Gophers team feels pretty vulnerable compared to prior years, and will be coming off an anemic showing against Nebraska. Granted, we can only glean EMU’s performance from a game vs. Howard, but historically, the Eagles seem to try some things and tend to prioritize shaking off their rust in their FCS matchups before gearing up for their schedule so I’m confident they can come in and make a game of it.

Keith: EMU at Minnesota. The Golden Gophers got the close win in the waning moments against Nebraska last week but it was one of those games that a team wins one time out of ten or less. Minnesota’s offense did not look very explosive last week so EMU has a shot to keep the game close heading into the fourth quarter where a special teams play can seal the deal.

Drew: Eastern Michigan can be Minnesota’s yearly trip over their own feet game. Minnesota really struggled to move the ball against Nebraska in Matt Rhule’s first season at Nebraska. If Eastern can keep Sean Tyler and Corey Crooms in front of them, like have in past seasons, the Eagles could find themselves in this game. The Gopher defense is for real, but Eastern Michigan won’t beat themselves against a power five opponent.

Alexis: I kinda ate my “Toledo can take Illinois” confident take in the last roundtable, so I’m loathe to be that confident again, but it’s also really hard not to be about the Eagles going to Minneapolis. Minnesota should be sweating about this game. Eastern Michigan is looking to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke, that they are capable of sustained levels of success more than once every thirty years, and I really think they have the ability to do it. You can’t eke out wins against Nebraska and think, “oh yeah, we’ll eat this MAC team for breakfast”.