No. 20 Toledo faces familiar challenge in Northern Illinois
TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) Every one of Toledo's season goals is still there for the taking. On Tuesday night, the No. 20 Rockets begin a high-profile stretch of games starting with an opponent that has continually shattered their aspirations for a conference title.
Northern Illinois (5-3, 3-1) has represented the Mid-American Conference West Division in the league's championship game each of the past five seasons, beating Toledo (7-0, 4-0) on the way each year. Toledo has lost just eight MAC games in the past six years, five of them to Northern Illinois.
''I've said when we started our journey here at Toledo, our goal is to year-in and year-out have the opportunity to play for a MAC championship,'' Rockets coach Matt Campbell said. ''Obviously, playing a team of (Northern Illinois') caliber, you know that you have to win that if you ultimately want to have a chance to win a conference championship. It's our next step in our process and obviously a huge challenge for us.''
Since losing three straight games for the first time since 2009 - including a near-upset of No. 1 Ohio State - Northern Illinois has averaged 51 points while winning its last three games. It will bring the MAC's best rushing offense to the Glass Bowl, led by junior tailback Joel Bouagnon, who averages a league-best 107.8 yards per game and is tied for third-best in the country with 14 rushing touchdowns.
If the Huskies beat Toledo for the sixth straight season, Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey doesn't believe the series history will play any role.
''In college football, every year is so different,'' Carey said. ''All that stuff is good for the record books and really good media stuff, but when you're inside these walls, it doesn't really make a difference because rosters change so much.''
Both Campbell and Carey cite the same keys to the game: ball security, third-down conversions and success in the red zone.
''All those really critical details are huge in football games where teams are really evenly matched,'' Campbell said.
Here are some other things to watch for in the game:
TUESDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
This is the first of three straight Tuesday night games for Toledo, while Northern Illinois will play four of the midweek games designed to get conference teams some national television exposure. A total of 16 mid-week MAC games will be televised by the ESPN family of networks and the CBS Sports Network.
TOLEDO'S GAUNTLET STRETCH
Following Northern Illinois, the Rockets play Central Michigan (4-4), Bowling Green (6-2) and Western Michigan (5-3), teams that are a combined 11-1 in MAC play.
''These next four games are kind of going to be a gauntlet for us,'' said Toledo quarterback Phillip Ely.
Ely was intercepted three times in the first half of a game at UMass on October 24, when the Rockets trailed by 18 points at halftime. He led the team on five straight scoring drives in the second half, finishing with a career-high 355 passing yards and five touchdowns in a 51-35 win.
''We're really going to have to hone down on some of the mistakes we made in earlier games, but it's kind of good we made those mistakes then because we can correct them and go into this game fully prepared,'' Ely said. ''I can't throw three picks these next few games, or we're going to lose.''
The Rockets know what a loss to Northern Illinois is likely to mean.
''Every game is a big deal, but this one is a really big deal. We've got to beat them if we want to go to the MAC championship,'' said senior defensive tackle Orion Jones. ''We're in a great position and have to keep winning. I realize we haven't beat them since I've been here, so it's definitely something important to me.''