Friday’s Mid-American Championship game pits MAC West champ Northern Illinois (10-2, 7-1 MAC) against MAC East champ Bowling Green (7-5, 5-3 MAC). As fate would have it, this is a rematch of last year title game.
NIU came into the 2013 championship game as a definitive favorite. The Huskies were ranked No. 16 in the country and with Heisman Trophy candidate Jordan Lynch at the helm, they went undefeated during the regular season. Its non-conference resume included wins at Iowa, Idaho and Purdue
Bowling Green brought a 9-3 record to Detroit , with two of the wins coming by a total of four points.
Falcons quarterback Matt Johnson, however, turned the underdogs into champs with a career night. He threw five touchdowns, including four in the first half as BG jumped out to a 31-13 lead. Running back Travis Green had two touchdowns in a 17-point Falcons fourth quarter to put the game away. Johnson ended up as the championship game MVP.
-- Northern Illinois has made a recent habit of reaching the title game. It’s the fifth straight championship game for NIU. The Huskies are 2-3 in those five appearances.
-- The run of success is even more remarkable since it spans several head coaches. Current coach Rod Carey is the fourth different head coach to lead NIU to a championship game and the third in the last five seasons. Carey is 22-5 since taking over prior to the Huskies appearance in the 2013 Orange Bowl.
NIU has 33 players on the 2014 roster who have played in at least one previous MAC championship and 18 players who have seen action in two or more MAC title games. There are six players on the active roster who will play in their fourth MAC championship LB Jamaal Bass, TB Akeem Daniels, S Dechane Durante, TE Luke Eakes, LS Brian Mayer and P Tyler Wedel.
-- There are 14 players who started against Bowling Green in the 2013 title game.
-- One of the biggest changes for BG from last year’s championship to this year is the absence of Matt Johnson. The junior quarterback played part of just one game this season as he sustained a season-ending injury in a loss at Western Kentucky to open the campaign.
-- Bowling Green has a 2-1 record at Ford Field, site of the championship game. The Falcons defeated Northwestern 28-24 at the 2002 Motor City Bowl. Last year, BG upset Northern Illinois in the MAC championship and then dropped a 30-27 decision to Pittsburgh in the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl.
THE ROAD TO DETROIT
Bowling Green’s season started as about as bad as a season can start. The Falcons got smoked by Western Kentucky, 59-31. Even worse, they lost the offense’s centerpiece, quarterback Matt Johnson to a season-ending injury.
Sophomore James Knapke stepped in at the position, and has been there ever since. He guided the Falcons to home wins over VMI and and Indiana in his first two starts, with the latter qualifying as one of BG’s season highlights. Knapke completed 46 of an astonishing 73 passes as the Falcons rallied for a 45-42 victory. The winning TD came on a Knapke pass with nine seconds left.
Bowling Green stayed in survival mode for the next two weeks with wins over UMass (47-42) and Buffalo (36-35).
After a 31-13 victory over Ohio, BG fell to one of the MAC’s hottest teams, Western Michigan, 27-10 at home.
The Falcons finished a sweep of their MAC East opponents with wins over Akron and Kent State to seal the division title.
Two games remained – both against MAC West foes. Bowling Green lost both.
The first was a 27-20 road loss to a desperate Toledo team in the Glass Bowl. One week later, BG closed with a 41-24 home loss to Ball State (4-7 entering the contest).
Despite losing their Heisman Trophy QB to graduation, Northern Illinois opened 2014 with wins in four of the first five outings. The only setback was a 52-14 loss to Arkansas of the Southeast Conference.
After a narrow 17-14 home win over Kent State the following week. Northern Illinois absorbed a critical 34-17 home loss to Central Michigan. It was a loss that keep the MAC West title on the line until the final day of regular season competition.
NIU ultimately won its last six games, including critical matchups against Toledo and Western Michigan. With the head-to-head win over Toledo, NIU earned another trip to the MAC Championship game.
SCORING -- Bowling Green (30.8 ppg) ranks fourth in scoring. Northern is one spot back with a 30.6 ppg average.
There is a much more pronounced difference in scoring defense, where Northern Illinois ranks fourth (24.2 ppg) and BG is 11th (32.5 ppg).
TOTAL OFFENSE – Bowling Green is third (439.5 ypg), while NIU fifth (433.5 ypg).
TOTAL DEFENSE: NIU is fourth (390.9 ypg). BG is 12th (494.8 ypg).
MOVING THE BALL: Northern Illinois’s forte is rushing as the Huskies rank second in rushing offense (246.2 ypg). They are 12th in passing (187.2 ypg).
Bowling Green is fairly balanced. It ranks third in rushing offense (180.5 ypg) and fifth in pass offense (259 ypg).
STOPPING THE BALL: Bowling Green ranks dead last among MAC teams in defending the pass (298.6 ypg) and is 10th in rushing defense (196.2 ypg).
Northern Illinois ranks sixth in defending the run (161.3 ypg) and also sixth against the pass (229.6 ypg).
BG – Travis Green ranks sixth among MAC rushers with an 80.3 ypg average. He has totaled 803 yards with nine touchdowns. Both he and Fred Coppet have averaged 5.7 ypc. Coppet has 653 yards (on 114 carries) and six TDs to his credit.
BG – Quarterback James Knapke ranks seventh in passing (221.2 ypg). He has completed 243-of-423 passes (57.4%) for 2,654 yards with 12 TDs and 10 interceptions.
BG – Freshman Roger Lewis is a First Team All-MAC selection. He has 66 receptions for 934 yards with five TDs. Junior Roger Burbrink totaled 55 catches for 663 yards with three scores.
NIU – Quarterback Drew Hare rushed 133 times for a team-high 790 yards (5.9 ypc) with seven TDs. He completed 60 percent of his passes (150/250) for 1,879 yards with 15 TDs and just one interception.
NIU – Cameron Stingily (Third Team All-MAC) is ninth among rushers with a 70.8 ypg average.
NIU – Da’ron Brown was a Second Team All-MAC selection. He leads NIU with 932 yards on 55 catches with six touchdowns.
AND SO …
Bowling Green’s floundering finish contrasts sharply with NIU’s clutch run down the stretch. The Falcons seemed to further confirm what many already felt – the MAC West is significantly stronger.
It could be a long night for BG if Northern Illinois gets its ground game untracked, and the Falcons have to remember that Hare is a significant running threat.
The Huskies defense, meanwhile, was impressive in the finale against a very talented Western Michigan team.
Bowling Green certainly has an explosive offense. If the Falcons can get their offense operating on all cylinders – ala the 2013 title game – and limit damage by the Huskies, they might be able to be able to pull out a title. The Huskies, however, seem to have earned a favorite status heading into Friday’s matchup.