FoSat Game of the Week — EMU vs NIU

The MAC’s two best defenses take the field on Thursday in Dekalb. Whose offense pulls out the win?

For the first time since the end of August, there will be Thursday night football in the Mid-American Conference.

Ball State and Toledo match-up in a battle that figures to be lopsided, but the Northern Illinois Huskies host the Eastern Michigan Eagles as well. The Huskies boast one of the best defenses nationally with a paltry 16.7 points per game allowed. The Eagles bring in an experienced offense to match the MAC’s second-best defense. Both teams need this game for different reasons.

The Huskies have impressed thus far this season. While the offense has sputtered at times, their defense has been otherworldly. Three wins over East foes have NIU (5–2, 3–0) tied for the MAC West lead, and the race against Toledo will require every win.

The Eagles (2–5, 0–3) have lost five straight following a win against Rutgers before a bye week. The victory was the first win over a Power Five school in school history, but the season since has been very forgettable with close loss after close loss. A loss puts EMU on the brink of bowl ineligibility, something Chris Creighton’s squad does not want to happen a year after finally getting back to a bowl.

When NIU has the ball

As mentioned above, the Huskies’ offense has been give-or-take this year. Rod Carey has cycled through three different quarterbacks thanks to injuries, but the latest — Marcus Childers — appears to be the dual-threat quarterback NIU has needed.

The freshman quarterback has 577 passing yards, 217 rushing yards, and eight total touchdowns over the last three weeks, and has shown the dual-threatness that his famed predecessors had during NIU’s dominance of the first half of the decade. His play has helped the Huskies move up to 4th in the MAC in points per game, despite still owning the ninth-best passing attack.

Look for Jordan Huff, Marcus Jones, and Tommy Mister to split the carries for NIU, as no one running back has separated himself from the pack. Through the air, look for Childers to target Christian Blake, Spencer Tears, and D.J. Brown with Shane Wimann as a hot target in the end zone out of the tight end position.

Looking to slow Childers and Company will be the Eagle defense, which ranks behind NIU in points allowed (19.9) and yards allowed (350.9) per game, but do boast the MAC’s best pass defense in terms of yards per game (167.9). Brody Hoying and Vince Calhoun patrol the secondary as well as anyone in the MAC, and the two have combined for 45 tackles this season, and Hoying has a pair of interceptions to go along with that.

Where the Eagles might have an issue is the stopping the run game. Not only do the Huskies generally have a solid rushing attack from a power/sweep option, but Eastern Michigan ranks middle of the pack in yards allowed on the ground per game (183.0). They do have a decent average yards per rush allowed number, so it’ll be about limiting the number of runs and forcing the Huskies to pass.

When Eastern Michigan has the ball

Really, this will be fun to watch. The Eagles send out Brogan Roback, who always seems to put on just enough of a show to make you go “oooh, that’s good”. The Huskies will send out the fourth best defense nationally in points per game and close to a top ten defense in yards allowed per play.

Roback has had his moments this year, but they haven’t been at the end of games. Still, he’ll sport a line featuring 1,817 yards, 10 touchdowns and a 61.8% completion rate. Just try to ignore the eight interceptions. Antoine Porter and Sergio Bailey II are solid receivers who should get some All-MAC considerations at the end of the season, but the Eagles will need a third option to step up against this secondary.

Where the Eagles have struggled all year is on the ground. It’s weird to say that Eastern Michigan has the worst rush offense in the MAC, but it does. And it’s not even close. EMU is the only team in the conference to average under 100 yards rushing per game and Shaq Vann has been wildly ineffective this year, battling a lingering shoulder injury. Ian Eriksen had a decent game against WMU last week, but if the rushing game remains stuck, the Eagles will continue to spin its wheels.

Oh yeah, the Huskies! So uhhh, Shauwn Lurry, Sutton Smith, and Bobby Jones. All beasts. Lurry? He went toe-to-toe with Desmond King two years ago for the FBS interception crown and is still doing his thing in the Huskie secondary. Smith? He’s only leading the conference in sacks (10) and leading the entire nation with tackles for loss (17.0), and he had a beautiful strip sack for a score last week. Just a total monster. Jones? He’s third in the MAC in tackles per game (9.0) and a leader of the linebacking core.

Really, NIU leads every statistical category in MAC defense except passing defense (3rd), opponent’s 4th down rate (7th?), and total turnovers forced (2nd). The Huskies get to the quarterback or pick him off, and they stuff the run better than anyone in the MAC, allowing a jaw-dropping 2.7 yards/rush.

The Huskies: they are good again.

Prediction

Eastern really seems to be starting to put things together after a brutal stretch of games that featured the two MAC division favorites, an SEC school, and a damn good rival. However, getting this NIU team this week is an absolute gut punch. Right after losing by missing a 23-yard chip shot in overtime, you go on the road on short rest to face a suffocating defense? Ouch.

The fact that EMU can’t run, well, at all is going to cause major issues this game. The Huskies would love nothing more than for Brogan Roback to have to test Lurry and Company to add to their 13 interceptions on the year. This should be a decent game early on, but look for NIU to pull away in the fourth quarter as Eastern chokes…again.

Prediction: Northern Illinois 31, Eastern Michigan 21
Record this season: 4–4