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2023 MAC Football Week 5 Game Preview: Northern Illinois Huskies at Toledo Rockets

The Huskies open up MAC play against the Rockets, who currently lead the West

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 24 Toledo at San Diego State Photo by Alan Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Toledo Rockets are a perfect 3-0 at home so far this season and will look to keep that streak in tact when the Northern Illinois Huskies travel to the Glass Bowl to take on their rivals this Saturday afternoon. And, while the Rockets might not have as much beef with NIU as they do with Bowling Green, Toledo will still be amped up for this one and look to keep their lead in the MAC West.

Game notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, September 30 at 2:30 p.m. ET
  • Network: ESPNU
  • Location: Glass Bowl — Toledo, OH
  • Spread: Toledo (-13.5)
  • Over/under: 47.5
  • All-time series: Toledo leads, 33-17
  • Last meeting: Toledo 52, NIU 32 — October 8, 2022
  • Last 5 meetings: NIU leads 3-2

Before 2009 this series was a very one sided affair, with Toledo winning 29 of the first 37 games since the two schools began competing in 1967. However, since the start of 2010, the Huskies have actually dominated the series, winning nine of the last 13 meetings and cutting into the massive Rocket lead.

This weekend’s match up is between teams trending in different directions. The Huskies started the season with a narrow win but have lost their last three contests while Toledo started with narrow loss but have since won their previous three games.

Getting to know the Huskies

Northern Illinois v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

The Huskies are caught between a Rocky and a hard place, as they were forced to bench their starting quarterback, Rocky Lombardi, after just one quarter against Tulsa last week. Lombardi has struggled this season with his accuracy (completing just 51% of his throws) and holding on to the football - he fumbled the ball into the endzone, untouched, for a safety last weekend that led to his benching. He is 51-100 on the year with 566 yards and just one touchdown to four interceptions.

His replacements, Ethan Hampton and, at times last weekend, Justin Lynch, have done an alright job but the offense has not been able to get much going. Hampton is now 19-31 for 147 yards and has two TDs to two interceptions while Lynch is 1-1 for seven yards and a score but has made a big impact on the ground, rushing for 96 yards and another TD on 11 carries.

Kacper Rutkiewicz leads the Huskies receiving corp, with 14 receptions for 204 yards and a score. Four players are tied in second place with eight grabs - tight end Chris Carter (118 yards, TD), Davis Patterson (77 yards), Trayvon Rudolph (48 yards, TD), and Gavin Williams (40 yards). And pair of players - Jalen Johnson and Grayson Barnes - have snagged seven passes for 52 and 83 yards, respectively.

NIU’s normally formidable run game has also been lacking this season, with the Huskies netting just 2.9 yards per carry and averaging just 105.5 yards per game. Antario Brown has rushed 64 times for 184 yards and a single TD (2.9 yards per carry), while Gavin Williams has carried it 25 times for 101 yards. But Lynch has been their best player on the ground, as he is netting 8.7 yards per carry and is closing in on the century mark for the season.

Defensively the team has shown a vast improvement from last season but has been put in bad situations and been on the field for long stretches that they have given up points but not nearly as many yards.

Teams are scoring 23.8 points per game against NIU which is down from 32.8 points per game a year ago. The Huskies are sitting at 26th in the NCAA, holding opponents to just 298.2 yard per game - which is another big improvement, as NIU gave up 395.7 yards per game in 2022.

Opponents are converting just 37% of their third downs against this defense, which has really helped the Huskies stay in most games. Last season the Huskies were one of the worst teams in the NCAA, allowing conversions on 44.2% of third down tries.

Raishein Thomas has been a beast up front for NIU. He leads the team in tackles, with 26, has 3.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, three quarterback hurries, and a pass break up. Fellow d-lineman, George Gumbs, has also played well, wracking up a team-leading 2.5 sacks, 3.5 TFL, a forced fumble, and a QBH to go along with his 13 total tackles.

In the secondary, NIU has a trio of solid players in Nate Valcarcel, Jordan Hansen, and Devin Lafayette. They are the team’s second, third, and fourth leading tacklers with 19, 18, and 17 stops respectively. They each have at least one TFL and Valcarcel has a pick while Lafayette has forced a fumble and Hansen has a sack on the season.

Getting to know the Rockets

NCAA Football: Toledo at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Rocket offense typically goes through Dequan Finn, a dual-threat quarterback that can hurt you with his legs just as much as he can with his arm. Finn has 679 passing yards with eight TDs to just four interceptions and is completing 63.3% of his throws (57-90). He also is the team’s second leading rusher, with 180 yards and a pair of touchdowns on the ground as well. He’s carried it 42 times and is averaging 4.3 yards per run.

However, it’s unlikely Finn will be seen in this contest, having suffered an injury vs. Western Michigan last week which required him to be carted off the field.

Tucker Gleason has been a very solid backup for Finn and has played in each of the first four games, completing 14 of his 21 passes for 199 yards and four scores. He’s been an invaluable spot starter for the Rockets, having helped Toledo clinch the West in Finn’s stead last season. He’ll likely be the guy under center this week.

Toledo has a trio of receivers that can burn defenses - Jerjuan Newton, Junior Vandeross III, and Larry Stephens. Newton tops all Rockets with 16 catches, 209 yards, and six touchdowns, while Vandeross III has 12 grabs for 147 yards and Stephens has two scores and 115 yards on his eight receptions.

On the ground, Toledo is averaging a whopping 214 yards per game - the top spot in the MAC and 16th best in the NCAA. Their 5.2 yards per carry is also 25th best in the nation and second in the MAC to Miami’s 5.9 yards per rush. When it’s not Finn carrying the ball, it’s Penny Boone. Boone leads the team in rushing attempts (52), rushing yards (402, 15th most in the NCAA), and rushing TDs (5, 17th most in the NCAA).

The Rockets swarm to the football and have amassed 15 sacks, which is seventh best in the NCAA, and 24 tackles for loss. Five players have 20 or more stops so far this season with linebacker Dallas Gant leading the way with 32.

Fellow linebackers Terrance Taylor and Jeremiah Peters have wrecked offensive lines. Taylor has 16 tackles, with four being behind the line and 2.5 of them being sacks. Peters is second on the team with 3.5 sacks and also has 4.5 TFL and a forced fumble in addition to his 13 stops.

But up front, NIU needs to watch out for Judge Culpepper. Culpepper’s 4.5 sacks is tied for fourth most in the FBS this season. He also has a QBH, forced a fumble, recovered a fumble, and tallied 12 total stops.

In the secondary, Toledo is stacked. Safeties Nate Bauer and Emmanuel McNeil-Warren are two of the Rocket’s leading tacklers, with 23 and 22 tackles respectively. Each has an interception, while Bauer has added a PBU, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery and McNeil-Warren has two PBUs and a forced fumble. Plus cornerbacks Quinyon Mitchell and Chris McDonald Jr. are great at breaking up plays. Mitchell has SIX pass break ups already while McDonald Jr. has a pair and added a 25-yard interception return to his numbers.