DeKALB – Once again, everything comes down to Northern Illinois and Toledo.
Last season, the Huskies clinched the West Division of the Mid-American Conference with a win over the Rockets at Huskie Stadium.
With a victory tonight at the Glass Bowl, NIU will win its fourth consecutive MAC West title. Should the Rockets win, they'll control their own destiny in the division, and will clinch a MAC Championship Game appearance with a win at Akron in their final regular-season game.
Toledo would win the division over Ball State and NIU due to the conference strength of schedule tiebreaker – the Rockets played, and beat, Bowling Green and Buffalo, the top teams in the MAC East, in their crossover games.
It's only fitting that the division comes down to these two programs.
"I think one of the neat things about this game is you look at the tradition of both schools," Rockets head coach Matt Campbell said. "I think way before myself or Coach (Rod) Carey, I think there's been tremendous coaches that have laid the foundation to both programs. I think the administration and universities of both programs have taken pride in their football programs."
The last time these two met at the Glass Bowl, NIU won in a shootout, 63-60. Expecting another 123 combined points is a lot to ask for, but nobody should be shocked if tonight's contest is another high-scoring affair.
No. 16 NIU leads the MAC with an average of 44.6 points per game, while the Rockets average 35 points per contest, the third-best total in the conference.
Senior quarterback Terrance Owens is having a solid season – he's completed 61.7 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions. Tailback David Fluellen has already passed the 1,000-yard mark and is averaging 7.0 yards per carry. Wideout Bernard Reedy has 736 yards and six touchdown catches.
Fluellen hasn't played the last two weeks due to a leg injury, but backups Kareem Hunt and Damion Jones-Moore have stepped in and done just fine. Running behind a strong offensive line, Hunt has 99 carries for an average of 6.8 yards, while Jones-Moore has run 34 times for an average of 7.4 yards.
"Their offense probably doesn't get as much recognition as Ball State's because Ball State has the three wide receivers and the quarterback that are getting recognition," Carey said. "I'm telling you, Toledo is every bit as good."
Since NIU's rise to prominence in the early 2000s, Huskie fans have considered Toledo as their main rival.
NIU and Ball State played for the Bronze Stalk last week – the only trophy game for NIU, but tight end Luke Eakes said the Rockets are his team's top rivalry.
"We've had problems with them in the past and they always come out to play well," he said. "They're always fired up to play us and we're fired up to play them. So, I consider them our biggest rival."
NIU'S FIVE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW
1. David Fluellen's health
Toledo running back David Fluellen, who is averaging 7.0 yards per carry, hasn't played the last two weeks because a leg injury and is questionable this week.
Backups Kareem Hunt and Damion Jones-Moore have been good, but Fluellen is the best tailback in the MAC. If he plays, it will be a big boost for the Rockets.
2. Can Lynch be contained?
It's pretty obvious at this point in the season that nobody will stop Jordan Lynch. Can the Rockets at least slow him down somewhat, or force a mistake or two?
3. The kicking game
Toledo kicker Jeremiah Detmer has missed only one field goal this year, and he's 6 of 6 from 40-49 yards. NIU kicker Mathew Sims has hit 13 of 17 attempts, including a 51-yarder. These two could play a big part in this contest.
4. Terrance Owens
He's no Lynch, but Toledo quarterback Terrance Owens has been good in his own right, completing 61 percent of his passes for 13 touchdowns and six interceptions. He hasn't thrown an interception in his last three games.
5. Would a victory help NIU in the polls?
NIU fans weren't happy when the Huskies didn't gain significant ground in the Coaches or Harris polls after last week's win over Ball State, though some of that was due to the lack of upsets among Top 25 teams. A win over the Rockets would be a nice victory, and the Huskies deserve to move up if they beat Toledo and teams ahead of them lose.
– Steve Nitz, email@example.com