Note: This preview appears in the Friday, Oct. 11 newspaper on Page B1.
For the last decade, both Ohio and Northern Illinois have represented the best of the Mid-American Conference.
The Bobcats and Huskies have been consistent winners, and consistent conference title contenders, in a league well-known for its parity and quick turnovers — both up and down the league’s food chain.
But OU and NIU have bucked that trend by always being in the mix. However, after Saturday’s bout inside Peden Stadium (3:30 p.m.) only one will be on firm footing in a division title chase with half the season left.
Ohio (2-3, 1-0 MAC) snapped a three-game skid last weekend at Buffalo but remains just 7-7 in conference home openers under Frank Solich. OU’s last 2-0 start in the MAC came in 2016, which was also the last time the ‘Cats won a division title.
A loss, on Homecoming no less, would leave Ohio with no margin for error the rest of the way. The Bobcats got off the mat at UB, but the fight is just beginning.
“It was a good win, but it’s only one right?” mused Ohio senior quarterback Nathan Rourke. “It’s going to take a lot more wins like that to get to where we want to get to.
“We’re not satisfied yet.”
Things are more dire for NIU (1-4, 0-1 MAC). The Huskies have won four of the last eight MAC Championship Games, and have 10 bowl appearances, over the last 11 years. NIU has played in seven of the last nine MAC title games.
But in 2019, NIU and first-year head coach Thomas Hammock are facing an uphill climb. The Huskies have dropped four in a row, including a dreadful 27-20 home setback last weekend to visiting Ball State. Northern Illinois led 17-3 at the half and didn’t allow a single pass completion in the second half, and still lost.
The loss to BSU was the Huskies’ only home game between Sept. 1 and Oct. 26. The Huskies have weathered road losses at Utah, at Nebraska and at Vanderbilt, so they’re well-tested. But there’s no doubt NIU will be in desperation mode for this visit to Athens.
“We know we can handle the environment. We won’t flinch,” Hammock said. “It’s just a continual search to play four quarters of football. That’s what we’re striving to do.”
Another conference loss would leave NIU multiple games behind Toledo in the MAC West standings, and put bowl game hopes on life support. The Huskies would essentially be eliminated from division contention before the season was half-completed.
That means Ohio will be facing a team looking to make a last stand, or rally for a new push into the conference slate.
“They’ll be upset. They’ll be wanting to get back on track,” Solich said. “You have a loss in MAC play, that makes you a little bit more aggressive in terms of wanting to get something done and change that around to get back on the winning track.
“Again, similar to the Buffalo game, we’ll be facing their best shot.”
Ohio will be looking to put its best foot forward on Homecoming weekend in Athens. The Bobcats came as close as they have all season to a solid four-quarter effort at Buffalo, but defensive issues (creating turnovers, QB pressure) and offensive inconsistency remain sticking points.
Rourke (58 percent passing, 1,012 passing yards, 6 TDs, 250 rushing yards) has been good, but not great. He’s been guilty of six turnovers in the two games.
With a crowded backfield looking for a standout, and a young receiving group still developing, Rourke knows its on him to set the tone for Ohio’s attack with good decisions, big plays, and consistency.
“It’s hard to win games with two turnovers. But there’s always an opportunity to get better,” he said. “Just got to take care of the ball. I’m okay with games like that as long as we win.”
Offense has been a bigger problem for NIU. The Huskies rank 10th in the MAC with just 17.4 points per game, and check in 11th in the league in rushing offense (97.2 yards per game) and 11th in red zone offense (3 touchdowns on 10 red zone trips).
Graduate transfer QB Ross Bowers (Cal) had boosted the Huskies’ passing game (1,297 yards, 259.4 per game) but has had eight turnovers. The Huskies, traditionally one of the best rushing teams in the league, are averaging less than 100 yards per game on the ground as standout back Tre Harbison (370 yards, 4.9 average) has been held in check.
But Solich is expecting NIU to double-down on the run game this weekend. OU has had issues there, and NIU — with three senior returning starters on the OL — will get back to one of their strengths. Hammock, after all, had a pair of 1,000-yard seasons at NIU as a player, and has coached running backs at Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Baltimore Ravens before returning to his alma mater.
“I think they’re trying to be what Northern Illinois has been, and they’re recruiting really good players. You’re going to get the same philosophy in terms of hard-nosed football,” Solich said.
And the Huskies can win a low-scoring game. NIU leads the MAC passing defense (182.2 yards per game allowed), third-down conversion percentage (28.1 percent) and ranks second in total defense (362.4 yards allowed per game).
The game will mark the end of a five-game gauntlet for Ohio. The Bobcats faced three good teams to wrap up the non-conference portion of the schedule, then opened MAC play with Buffalo and NIU — the two teams that met in last year’s title game.
If OU can get through it at 3-3, and 2-0 in the league, it will be a good position to make a run at the division title. And they’re expecting it to be another close battle.
In each of the last five meetings, and in six of the last seven clashes, this game has been decided by seven points or less.
“We’re facing the two teams in the MAC Championship Game back-to-back, so that’s not going to be easy for us,” said Solich. “Obviously, Northern Illinois is a proud program, so they’ll be fired up and ready to go.”