Five things you need to know about the NIU-Toledo game
TOLEDO, Ohio - No. 16 Northern Illinois is unbeaten and is trying to get back to the BCS, but first the Huskies have to win the Mid-American Conference's West Division.
Doing that at Toledo Wednesday night won't be easy. The 7-3, senior-laden Rockets are unbeaten at home this year and can win the West themselves with a victory here and another next week at Akron. It was a 63-60 game two years ago between these two teams that launched both the Northern Illinois program and the #MACtion brand to new heights, and here both teams are again playing for the division title and for NIU, potentially much more.
Below are five reasons the latest renewal of the Northern Illinois-Toledo series is worth watching...
1. Jordan Lynch, borderline Heisman candidate
The Huskies senior quarterback has the numbers to potentially make it to the stage in New York City as a Heisman finalist, and in many other years he'd have a very good shot. Viewers of last week's 48-27 win over Ball State saw Lynch put up more video game numbers (345 yards passing, 123 rushing, four total touchdowns) but also make the type of highlight-reel plays he's become accustomed to making, and the NIU offense follows his lead. Toledo has actually ridden its defense to this point and though it can still score, it can't score enough if Lynch gets loose. If NIU scores enough to win this one, chances are Lynch will score some style points -- and possibly some Heisman third or fourth place votes -- along the way.
"I said what I said after the (Ball State) game and I believe that," NIU coach Rod Carey said. "We played really well offensively, and for Jordan Lynch to not be in the Heisman conversation, I think people probably fell asleep if they aren't talking about him. I still stand by that."
2. Jordan Lynch, breaker of records and opponents' upset hopes
Last week's 48-27 win over Ball State was much closer than the final score indicated. Lynch just kept the Huskies rolling, and after he ran for the go-ahead touchdown he directed another, time-consuming drive that ended in a touchdown, too, then NIU returned an interception for a touchdown.
NIU has 14 consecutive road wins, six this season, and has won 23 straight MAC games. It can win close games, too; the Huskies are 7-0 over the last two seasons in games decided by seven points or fewer, which includes last year's win over Toledo when Lynch threw for 470 yards and ran for 162.
"He's as special a football player as there's been in our conference in a long time," Toledo coach Matt Campbell said. "He's the ultimate competitor, and he's blessed to have some great playmakers around him, too."
3. Kareem Hunt is a star in the making
Toledo would like its offensive success to start with the running of senior David Fluellen, a legit NFL prospect, and steady play from senior quarterback Terrance Owens. Fluellen has been out with a foot injury, and freshman Kareem Hunt has delivered in his place with four straight 100-yard rushing games and six touchdowns over that span.
BCS programs missed on Hunt, and his immediate production at Toledo has been highlighted by a 186-yard night last week in a win over Buffalo. Owens has been better as the season has gone along, too, and Toledo's offense is averaging 640 yards in the last two games.
"We've been able to take what the defense (has given) us, and we're really blessed to have guys like Bernard Reedy and Alonzo Russell that can really make plays on the perimeter," Campbell said.
Reedy, a speedster out of the slot and dangerous return-game threat, is probably Owens' favorite receiver. Toledo has lost only on the road -- at Florida, Missouri and Ball State in September.
Said Carey: "Toledo's offense probably doesnít get as much recognition as Ball Stateís because Ball State has the three wide receivers and the quarterback that are getting recognition. I'm telling you, Toledo is every bit as good."
4. The MAC doesn't get many of these chances
That Ball State quarterback is Keith Wenning, and he had the NIU defense on its heels for the first three quarters last week. Another Lynch rally essentially ended Ball State's chances of going on to play for the league title, though, and the schedule makers look smart for scheduling NIU and Toledo in this spot.
It's been a year of the haves and have-nots in the MAC with Northern Illinois on the cusp of the BCS again, Toledo and Ball State having multiple NFL prospects on their rosters, Buffalo superstar Khalil Mack keying that program's best season in five years and on the flip side, two coaches being fired during the season at the bottom of the league.
For reasons beyond Lynch's chances of getting to NYC, the MAC could use a memorable game here. It just might get one.
5. This is for all the MAC-West marbles
Considering where Northern Illinois has been, outside observers might roll their eyes at the importance of winning another division title. Well, there is no league title game without a division title, and without that there's no chance of a BCS return -- and there's no opportunity for Lynch and Company to again play on national TV in that league title game. Toledo has been good, won bowl games and played on a big stage plenty over the last three seasons, but the Rockets No. 1 goal is to win the West, and they haven't done that since 2004. If Toledo wins here and Toledo, NIU and Ball State all finish with one loss, Toledo wins the tiebreaker. Derailing the Jordan Lynch Train would be quite the feather, too, so expect both teams to deliver A-plus performances on Wednesday night.