The Northern Illinois Huskies and Bowling Green Falcons meet in the 19th annual Mid-American Conference Championship on Friday night in Detroit, Mich. at venerable Ford Field. This will be the third consecutive meeting in the title game for these two teams. BGSU is the first three-time Eastern Division champion since Marshall won the first six, while NIU is the six-time champion of the West.
The Huskies arrive at the championship game on a low point. After starting the season 2-3, capped by a loss to Central Michigan in the MAC opener, NIU won six games in a row. They defeated Toledo for the sixth straight year and only needed a victory in their home finale against Ohio to earn their spot in Detroit. Shockingly, NIU's long November winning streak was ended by the Bobcats, 26-21, and only a Toledo loss to WMU saved the division title.
BGSU, on the other hand, cruised to the MAC East title. After splitting four difficult non-conference games, the Falcons went undefeated against Eastern Division teams for the third straight year, often by ridiculous scores (59-10 vs Akron, 48-0 vs Kent State, 62-24 vs Ohio). They wrapped up the division crown with a win at Western Michigan, then lost a sloppy Senior Day against Toledo before closing the season with a 48-10 win over Ball State.
The history of this match-up has been heavily focused on the quarterbacks. In 2013, the focus was on Jordan Lynch and his Heisman campaign. He performed admirably, but the game was a coming-out party for Matt Johnson, who threw five touchdown passes. In 2014, both were gone -- Lynch to graduation, Johnson to season-ending injury -- and Drew Hare outclassed BGSU backup James Knapke.
This year, Matt Johnson is back for the Falcons and earned MAC Offensive Player of the Year honors. He's the nation's leading passer with 4,465 yards, and he's second nationally with 41 touchdown passes. His presence has put a turbo charge in Dino Babers' #FalconFast offense.
For the Huskies, the situation is vastly different. One quarterback was lost early in the season. Then, Hare was lost for the year against Toledo with a ruptured Achilles. That left redshirt freshman Ryan Graham and true freshmen Tommy FIedler as the top two signal callers. Graham started against Ohio, but he was hurt. He is currently listed as day-to-day, but Fiedler has been named the starter for Friday's game.
In his only action of the season, against Ohio, Fiedler is 9-for-17 with 113 yards and a touchdown.
MAC Championship Talkin' sMACk
For the third consecutive year Bowling Green and Northern Illinois will face off against each other in Detroit for the MAC Championship. Each has won a game convincingly. How will this one shape up?
This dichotomy between the two quarterbacks places Northern Illinois in a dangerous situation. The Falcons have feasted on the ability to get ahead of teams and turn them one-dimensional. That ability led to BGSU's defense earning 26 sacks and 17 interceptions. The 17 picks were second in the MAC and helped the Falcons lead the league with a +11 turnover differential. In fact, BGSU is 9-1 this season when they have a lead beyond the first quarter.
The key for NIU to counteract this and win is two-fold. First, they have to utilize their league-leading rushing attack. Against Ohio, the Huskies ran for just 73 yards on 38 carries. Their normal output is 213 yards per game. Teams that have had the most success against the Falcons have been able to run the ball effectively. Most recently, Toledo ran for 198 yards on 50 attempts in their 44-28 win over the Falcons. Kareem Hunt bludgeoned BGSU for 153 yards, much of it in the first quarter.
However, the Huskies will also have to rely heavily on a pass defense that leads the MAC in passing efficiency allowed. They've allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete just 55.6 percent of passes and have given up just 20 touchdown passes. They lead the MAC with 19 interceptions. In particular, NIU will need to do what others have done fairly well recently -- take away the Falcons' deep ball.
To counteract this, BGSU could come out running the ball. It would not be the first time that the Falcons have deviated from their normal game play in Detroit. In 2013, they were known as a run-first, defense-oriented team, but Johnson came out throwing early and often. NIU wasn't prepared, and Johnson had a career day (to that point, anyway).
Could 2015 be similar? Bowling Green ranks fifth in the MAC with 178.2 rushing yards per game. Travis Greene is third in both rushing yards (1,036) and rushing touchdowns (12). He's joined by Fred Coppet, who's no slouch with 712 yards and four touchdowns. Even Johnson gets in the act (149 yards, four TDs).
Such a strategy could work, too. NIU is sixth in the MAC against the run, but they've been gashed twice in the last four games. They gave up 291 yards on the ground to Toledo, then 230 more to Ohio in the season finale. If BGSU can run the ball effectively early, it could cause the Huskies' defense to contract and open up the passing game.
The final point about this game is a wild card: will Tommylee Lewis play? Lewis has only 33 catches on the season, but he's a dangerous player, especially when he's paired with wide receiver Kenny Golladay. Forcing BGSU to worry about an extra playmaker, when they'll already have to focus much on stopping Joel Bouagnon, would be a huge boost for the Huskies.
It's time for the MAC to showcase its wares once again. Will we get another game like the previous two, decided early by an offensive juggernaut, or will we get a close game like the 2012 thriller involving Kent State? All will be answered on Friday night.