The wait is over.
From season's start, Tuesday's matchup between Northern Illinois and Toledo has looked like the key game in the MAC West schedule. As the campaign enters its homestretch, the contest does not look set to disappoint.
Whichever team comes out ahead in DeKalb earns the inside track to this year's MAC West title. If the host Huskies (7-2, 4-1 MAC) come out on top, they will simply need to win out against Ohio and fellow second-place MAC West team Western Michigan to earn a trip to Detroit for their fifth consecutive MAC Championship game. If the Rockets (6-3, 5-0 MAC) prevail, a single win either against Bowling Green or at Eastern Michigan will put Toledo in its first conference title game since 2004, thanks to its tiebreaker over every other MAC West contender.
Both teams have lived at or near the top of the MAC West standings in recent years, and NIU has had the better of several close battles in recent years. 2013's Nov. 20 contest in Toledo served as the de facto MAC West title game, and the Huskies used a 14-0 fourth quarter to cruise to a 35-17 victory en route to an undefeated MAC regular season campaign. Northern Illinois has won four straight in the series, with Toledo's last win coming in 2009, as Tim Beckman's Rockets upset Jerry Kill's Huskies in a 20-19 result at the Glass Bowl (Five years later, Beckman is still upsetting Jerry Kill).
In any case, both coaches, Toledo's Matt Campbell and Northern Illinois' Rod Carey, expect a tight battle between the familiar opponents.
Carey on Toledo game: "It's like fighting your brother. You know how they fight...game will come down to fundamentals."— Toledo Football (@ToledoFB) November 10, 2014
Campbell: " The NIU-Toledo matchup has meant so much the last couple years and credit goes to both programs."— Toledo Football (@ToledoFB) November 10, 2014
After a couple of midseason stumbles, notably a bitterly disappointing 34-17 home loss to Central Michigan on Oct. 11, the Huskies have gotten on a roll with consecutive wins over Miami, Eastern Michigan and Ball State. Cameron Stingily has generously contributed piles of yards on the ground in recent weeks, powering the top rushing offense in the MAC and leading the Huskies to a win against Ball State last week with 148 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Toledo has featured a power rushing game to match, with the second-place ground game in the MAC, not to mention the top total offense in the conference. The Rockets are led by Kareem Hunt, whose 8.4 yards per carry pace all MAC rushers. The efficacy of that running game has the Rockets shooting for the moon. They enter Tuesday's contest having won five of six, most recently a 30-20 road handling of Kent State one week prior. Also, despite injury scares to quarterback Logan Woodside and All-MAC center Greg Mancz against Kent State, both players are expected to play for a nearly full-strength Rockets team Tuesday.
With matching explosive ground attacks to go alongside serviceable signal callers Drew Hare and Woodside, the advantage may well go to the team able to make a key defensive stop. Neither squad has had a suffocating defense this season (Toledo is first in run defense, 12th in pass defense and ninth overall in the MAC, while Northern Illinois sits sixth in rush defense, seventh in pass defense and fourth overall), but each side can point to a few possible difference makers in hopes of slowing down its opponent's attacks.
For Toledo, a stout front seven led by defensive tackle Orion Jones and linebacker Junior Sylvestre can give the Rockets hopes of containing the Huskies' ground pound, and safety Jordan Haden will look to contribute another timely interception to bail out the struggling Toledo secondary. When Northern Illinois is defending, junior cornerback Paris Logan will aim to create a no-fly zone for Woodside and defensive end Jason Meehan will shoot to improve on his six sacks this season, already good for second in the MAC.
While a Toledo win would give the Rockets an easy path to Detroit, a Huskies victory would throw the MAC West into chaos, with three teams sharing the division lead at one conference loss apiece. So while Tuesday's game may not end up making the conference race any clearer, it will certainly have heavy title implications as the season winds down.