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NIU football: Huskies conclude season at Central Michigan with chance at MAC West championship

NIU running back Jordan Huff scores a touchdown against Western Michigan on Nov. 15 at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.
NIU running back Jordan Huff scores a touchdown against Western Michigan on Nov. 15 at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.

DeKALB – Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey is aware his team doesn’t control its fate for the Mid-American Conference title game; however, the Huskies (8-3, 6-1) do have an opportunity to play for the MAC West title Friday when they close out the regular season at Central Michigan (7-4, 5-2). 

Entering the final week of the season, the Huskies are tied with Toledo (9-2, 6-1) for first place in the MAC West. Toledo owns the tiebreaker and with a win this week against Western Michigan, the Rockets would represent the West in the MAC championship game next month in Detroit. 

NIU’s only conference loss was a 27-17 defeat by Toledo on Nov. 2. 

“We talked about Toledo as we put our last game to bed when we were talking about that in reference to this game,” Carey said. “We said we have an opportunity to play for MAC West championship … we do control this, so that’s what we focus on.”

The Huskies faced a high-powered offense in Toledo and again will have to defend a red-hot Central Michigan offense that has scored 175 points in its past four games. 

NIU safety Mykelti Williams said after reviewing the Huskies’ mistakes against Toledo, it all comes down to execution as they prepare for the Chippewas. 

“I think once we execute our job to the best of our ability, I think we’ll be fine,” Williams said. “We just have to do a good job at protecting their best guys. They have very explosive players, but we have explosive players.”

Central Michigan’s two most explosive offensive weapons battled early injuries, but are back contributing in a big way. Senior receiver Corey Willis missed three games with a hand injury, while senior tight end Tyler Conklin broke a bone in his foot in the preseason. 

Both returned Oct. 7 and have been dominant. Willis has scored eight touchdowns, including seven in Central Michigan’s past four games. Conklin had 104 receiving yards last week during a 42-23 win over Kent State. 

“Willis has great change of direction, very good speed, good hands, he’s tough, and he plays hard all the time,” Carey said.

The Huskies will need to stop Central Michigan quarterback Shane Morris, a graduate transfer from Michigan. He struggled early in the season, tossing 11 interceptions in his first seven starts. 

But Morris has changed the script during the Chippewas’s current four-game winning streak. He has completed 58.2 percent (53 of 91) of his passes for 894 yards with 11 touchdowns and only one interception.

“Morris is playing his best football of the year as of late, which is what you want,” Carey said. “You have to play square defense against them, have to keep guys in front and tackle them. That’s the No. 1 thing you see all over film these last few games is that they are just breaking tackles.”

Last season, Central Michigan topped NIU, 34-28, in a triple-overtime thriller at Huskie Stadium. 

“Last year and this year’s difference is night and day, different team,” NIU linebacker Alex Schwab said. “We didn’t even have the chance to compete in the MAC Championship after Week 3 in the conference games. This year everything is folding out in how we wanted to have a shot at winning the MAC West, and hopefully things go our way, and we’ll have the opportunity to go to Detroit.”

Friday’s kickoff against the Chippewas is at 11 a.m. in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. 

Whether or not the Huskies compete in Dec. 2’s MAC championship game, NIU is bowl-eligible and will find out its bowl fate during college football selection Sunday on Dec. 3.

Prediction: Northern Illinois 27, Central Michigan 21

NIU needs more production from quarterback Marcus Childers, who only threw for 64 yards against Western Michigan. Carey admitted Childers’ 64 passing yards will never be enough, but said his performance was still effective along with Jordan Huff’s career-best 185 rushing yards. The Huskies will fall behind early, but fight back for a big road victory as they head into bowl season.

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