DeKALB – Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey remained mum when discussing the importance of Thursday’s game against Toledo.
But it’s no secret.
The Huskies’ showdown with the Rockets is the most anticipated matchup of the season. NIU (6-2, 4-0) and Toledo (7-1, 4-0) are the only remaining unbeaten teams in Mid-American Conference play.
After this week, both teams have a favorable schedule with three games left, so the winner of Thursday’s game could be crowned MAC West champs and be the division’s representative for the MAC championship game in Detroit next month.
"They all get bigger as you stack on wins and you go later into the year,” Carey said. “So yeah, to this point (Toledo is NIU’s biggest game), but talk to me next week, that one will be bigger than this one, I'm sure. That's how college football goes."
NIU will be without leading rusher Jordan Huff for a third-straight game. Huff is recovering from a left foot injury.
Carey said earlier this week that Huff would be available against the Rockets, but Huff posted a tweet Wednesday afternoon indicating he would miss the trip.
“When they tell (you) you look good out there running but they still don’t travel you,” the tweet said.
Marcus Jones and Tommy Mister are expected to again fill in for the injured Huff.
Jones had the game-winning touchdown in overtime last week against Eastern Michigan.
"Everyone thinks we are second best to (Toledo) and coming into this game worried,” Jones said. “We just have to play our game and treat this game like every other week, like Boston College or Nebraska."
Huskies quarterback Marcus Childers also should see a lot of carries this week in his fourth career start. The redshirt freshman has led NIU in rushing twice against its past three opponents.
Through seven games played this season, Childers has rushed for 329 yards and three touchdowns on 91 carries, and completed 78 of 127 passes for 872 yards and nine touchdowns with only one interception.
Toledo’s offense recently has been rolling. The Rockets have scored 106 points in their past two games and have won their last three games by a combined 88 points. NIU linebacker Bobby Jones IV said Toledo is a smart team and both squads match up equally talent-wise.
"You really have to stick to your key fundamentals,” Jones said. “Don't do anything special, and everybody does their jobs and that's how you really stop a good offense."
Rockets quarterback Lagan Woodside leads a passing attack that is ranked No. 1 in the MAC at 289.5 yards a game. He’s passed for 2,295 yards and 19 touchdowns, but more impressively, he has only thrown two interceptions on 232 attempts. Toledo likes to air it out as Woodside leads all MAC quarterbacks with eight completions of 40 yards or more.
The Huskies answer with the conference’s top-ranked secondary in pass efficiency defense, but they aren’t perfect. Last week against Eastern Michigan, safety Shawun Lurry was burned several times, including two long-yardage passes that led to Eagles’ scores.
"It starts with the quarterback, he's really good,” Carey said. “Logan's [Woodside] a good player. He's got complete command of the offense. He moves good enough to get out of harm's way. It is going to be a challenge for our defense because they line it up with a really good running game.”
“NIU is a tremendous opponent we know very well,” Toledo coach Jason Candle said. “Team that has a great winning culture and is well coached. It will certainly be a stiff challenge for us.”
Prediction: Northern Illinois 27, Toledo 21
The Huskies secondary got embarrassed a few times against Eastern Michigan but buckled down late. NIU’s defense will need as close to a mistake-free game as it can get against the MAC’s hottest offense. Childers hasn’t shown the ability to throw the deep ball – he’ll need to air it out to keep Toledo’s defense honest and to prove he isn’t just an agile, short-yardage quarterback.