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Beyond the Empire: Big Ten Non-Conference Previews — MACtion WILL BE Magic, Pts. II and III

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Previews of the Big Ten-MAC non-conference football games through September 11:

NCAA Football: Northern Illinois at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Ed. note: Updating this to include James’ thoughts on some of the spots in the Midwest to catch the best MACtion.

Part III: What MACtion Means to Me

Obviously, occupying a pretty similar footprint, there’s plenty of cross-pollination between the Big Ten and MAC, just as there is between OTE and Hustle Belt — as such, we want to get tips from the experts (without reviving Jesse’s B1G-MAC Swap...man, remember that shit?!).

OTE: Is there a MAC stadium or quintessentially MAC experience that you think even fans of a Big Ten team would get on board with? What’s one tradition, one rivalry, one stadium, one event that we ought to know more about?

JJ: If there’s one rivalry I would suggest for you to go to if you’re a fan of the Big Ten, it would be the Battle of the Bricks between Ohio and Miami. Both of those schools are Midwest to their cores; built from brick and made in the early 1800’s style that many of the oldest Big Ten schools are, their environments are unrivaled in the MAC. It helps that the action is usually really good too, as these teams are usually fairly evenly matched.

The Battle of the Bricks is the oldest, most storied rivalry in the conference, and both locations offer many experiences for Big Ten fans.

Ohio features Peden Stadium, perhaps the most scenic stadium in the conference, having stood in its original location since 1929, with very little change. Standing on the banks of the Hocking River, the stadium is so picturesque, it’s considered a Historical Landmark. Its 27,000 person capacity makes for a cozy and intimate experience as well, adding to the intensity of the game when it’s played at Peden.

Miami’s Yoder Stadium, while not as old as Peden, still has its own charm, most especially with the Cradle of Coaches Plaza which greets entrants as they fill into the stadium. Miami’s reputation precedes it in the football world; names like Harbaugh, Hayes, Eubanks, Parseghian and Brown have all trod the grounds in Oxford, and the plaza gives a nod to the program’s tradition.

Other stadiums I would suggest you check out include Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo (on top of a hill, right under a train track, with an awesome view of the campus and city), the Glass Bowl in Toledo (awesome castle tower in the endzone, enough said) and Rynearson Stadium in Ypsilanti (which you really do have to see in person to comprehend how insanely MAC it is.)

(Aside: I am also personally biased for Kelly/Shorts Stadium in Mt. Pleasant, which somehow feels both bigger and smaller than it should be at all times, with the conference’s biggest video board and newest athletic facility on opposing endzones, while the field itself is still the same as it’s been since the 70’s, buried under two hills and surrounded on all sides by grandstands that put fans right on top of the field.)


Pt. II: Previewing the September 11 B1G-MAC Games

After canceling its season entirely, in September the MAC voted to play a truncated, six-game, conference-only football schedule in 2020.

This was the correct decision for health and everything else.

But it meant we didn’t get MACtion.

Every season since I’ve cared to look 2005, I think, a MAC team has beaten a Big Ten football team. I’d say, then, that odds are good that trend repeats itself in 2021.

But which team will it be? Who will we get to collectively point and laugh at?

Our friends at Hustle Belt are here to help us out with team-by-team, game-by-game previews of all the Big Ten-MAC football games. Please make sure you’re giving them a click and a follow on Twitter.

Part II: The Game Previews

We gave our inimitable Hustle Belt friends a few questions to preview each of the games—we go through Saturday, September 11 here for you.

The Questions:

  1. What’s the major storyline or narrative surrounding the program right now — how are they entering 2021?
  2. How well do they match up with the Big Ten team? [Read: Can they stop the run?]
  3. Give us a player or two to watch.
  4. Tell us how you see the game finishing. Bonus points for specificity!

Western Michigan Broncos at Michigan Wolverines

Saturday, Sept. 4, 11am | ESPN | Mich -17 | O/U 67

Zach Folly: Western Michigan is an interesting team to observe from the outside. Many Bronco fans will tell you that they’re disappointed with the on-field results since the Broncos magical 2016 season, which saw them go 13-0 and reach the Cotton Bowl. Head coach Tim Lester now enters his fifth season at the helm of the program with a 24-20 record, and the Broncos have gone 0-2 in bowls under his leadership. There is certainly room for improvement, but there is a ton of talent here. This veteran group could be the best roster that Lester has had in his time in Kalamazoo.

Offensively, 9 starters are back, led by QB Kaleb Eleby and a veteran offensive line. After going 4-2 in last years’ shortened season, the Broncos should be in contention in the loaded MAC West. 19 starters return overall, with proven veteran talent all over the roster. The defense struggled last season, but there is a ton of firepower on the offensive end. Another year of growth should help this team as they look to capture their first MAC title since that 2016 season.

The expectations are high this offseason in Kalamazoo, mostly because of the talent on offense. Eleby is one of the most underappreciated players in the conference, and finished last year with a stellar 64.7% completion and 18:2 TD to INT ratio. He is joined in the backfield by veteran RB La’Darius Jefferson Jr., who was second team All-MAC last year and averaged 5.6 yards per carry. He will be running behind a veteran offensive line, where four starters return from last year who have a combined 75 career starts among them. If this group can keep Eleby upright and allow the ground game to flourish, this will be a potent offense that is capable of scoring on anybody.

How well do they match up?

As I mentioned above, there are some question marks on the defensive side of the ball for the Broncos. Last year, WMU gave up 34.2 points per game and allowed over 150 yards rushing in three of their six games. Any time you’re playing a Big Ten school, stopping the run is going to be the name of the game. First team All- MAC DT Ralph Holley is back to solidify the defensive line, along with DE Ali Fayad.

There will need to be some younger lineman that step up to help these two if they want to improve against the run. The linebacking corps is led by MLB Corvin Moment, who was third team All-MAC last year and third on the Broncos with 37 tackles. The secondary boasts three senior starters, led by former Pitt Panther and first team All-MAC performer Bricen Garner at safety. The pass defense should be just fine.

On offense, there is a ton of firepower. The aforementioned Eleby and Jefferson lead the way, but I think the offensive line is the main story here. This very well may be the best offensive line in the MAC, led by sixth year senior and first team All-MAC center Mike Caliendo. They are good in pass protection, giving up only seven sacks in six games last year, and also allowed the Broncos to rush for 193 yards per game. This is a balanced, high powered offense, that averaged 41.7 points per game last year. There is talent everywhere, and this group can give anybody problems.

Players to Watch

As you may have guessed by now, the highlight of the Broncos this year is the offense. One person I haven’t mentioned yet is WR Skyy Moore, who enters his third year in Kalamazoo as one of the best returning receivers in the conference. Moore was a first team All-MAC performer two years ago as a true freshman, when he burst onto the scene with 51 receptions for 802 yards and 3 TD’s. Last year, he played second fiddle to D’Wayne Eskridge, who was drafted in the second round of April’s NFL Draft. Even with Eskridge as the focal point of the passing game, Moore still managed 25 catches for 388 yards and 3 TD’s. He will be a player that opposing defenses will have to focus on this year.

Kaleb Eleby is perhaps the best young QB in the MAC, and his performance last season solidified his standing as one of the up and coming talents in the conference. Eleby threw for at least 250 yards in all six games last year, and finished the season with 1,715 yards, 18 TD’s and 2 INT’s. Playing behind a veteran offensive line, and with plenty of talent at the skill positions around him, he could be poised for a huge year.

On defense, the leader of the group is safety Bricen Garner. Garner transferred into Kalamazoo last offseason after starting his college career at Pitt, where he made six starts over three seasons. Garner transferred to Western Michigan in search of more playing time, and took advantage of the opportunity by racking up 45 tackles (third on the team) and four pass break up’s (most on the team) on the way to being named first team All-MAC. Along with fellow senior AJ Thomas at the other safety spot, Garner should solidify this defense on the back end and give the Broncos a solid secondary.

Prediction

This is a tough one to predict. Michigan has traditionally dominated the directional Michigan schools, and beat the Broncos 49-3 the last time these two teams met in 2018. With that said, the Wolverines seem to have a ton of question marks right now. When you think of the brand of Michigan, it usually starts with a stout defense.

That wasn’t the case last year, with the Wolverines giving up 434 yards and 34.5 points per game. In comes new defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, and a transition in the coaching staff always leads to questions leading into a new season.

While the Wolverines undoubtedly have more talent that the Broncos, I can definitely see the high powered WMU offense giving this defense some issues. I feel similarly on the other side of the ball. Michigan will be breaking in a new starting QB and have questions along the offensive line. While the Broncos roster, on both sides of the ball, is loaded with upperclassmen, the Wolverines two deep seems very heavy on freshman and sophomores.

What will prevail in this matchup – the veteran experience of Western Michigan, or the talent of the Wolverines? I tend to think that the Wolverines talent will ultimately prevail, though I do not think this game will be a walk in the park. I expect a back and forth affair, with Michigan pulling out a close victory in the fourth quarter.

Prediction: Michigan 30, Western Michigan 24

Miami Hydroxide Redhawks at Minnesota Golden Gophers

Saturday, Sept. 11, 11am CT | ESPNU

Storylines for the RedHawks: Of all 127 FBS teams that played last fall, not a single one took the field fewer times than Miami (OH). And it’s a shame because the RedHawks finally had momentum in the Chuck Martin era after coming off an inspiring 2019 MAC title run. Miami showed flashes of brilliance in its 2-1 finish to the season, but it felt like trying three samples at Baskin-Robbins and walking out of the store without ordering anything substantial.

The positives entering 2021 are that the RedHawks ranked first in the FBS in sacks per game and quarterback Brett Gabbert is rapidly developing into an upper-tier passer in the MAC. The negatives involve significant turnover on the offensive line and fixing a secondary which yielded 268 passing yards per game last year. The RedHawks have all the makings of MAC contenders as they hope their prime position groups — wide receivers, defensive line, and linebackers — lead them back to Detroit,

How well do they match up?

Fortunately for Miami, Rashod Bateman is no longer on campus, so there is a collective sigh of relief among defensive backs in red and white. The RedHawks consistently got burned deep and struggled covering receivers near the sidelines last year. In their lone loss, Buffalo amassed 353 passing yards and four touchdowns on 17 completions against the Miami secondary. Thus, this feels more like a Tanner Morgan takeover game than a Mohamed Ibrahim outburst. Also, Miami has seen ample success in stacking the box and limiting running backs by allowing just 125 rushing yards per contest in 2020. The most intriguing matchup in this game, however, will be Daniel Faalele and the Gophers’ massive offensive line against Kameron Butler and Miami’s fleet-footed pass rush.

On the other side of the ball, Miami is loaded in the receiving group and Brett Gabbert delivers some sharp throws 15+ yards down the field. Gabbert averaged 11 yards per attempt last year, so expect Miami to attack through the air early and often. The RedHawks’ pass protection should take a hit with the losses of NFL draft pick Tommy Doyle and All-MAC center Danny Godlevske, so there should be plenty of opportunities for Minnesota’s prized grad transfer Nyles Pinckney and the defensive line to establish some rhythm after a disappointing 2020.

Players to watch

Jack Sorenson accounted for 49.5 percent of Miami’s receiving production last season. In three games, he produced 354 yards and four touchdowns on nearly 20 yards per reception. The 2019 MAC Championship Game MVP has been on fire lately with four 100-yard performances in his last five outings. Sorenson has great hands and is useful all over the field. His skillset is well complemented by Miami’s other receivers such as deep threat James Burns and slot specialist Mac Hippenhammer.

Miami’s linebackers are really intriguing prospects. Ryan McWood posted a pair of 14-tackle outings in 2020 and secured a game-winning interception to beat Ball State. He’ll be the key factor in slowing down Ibrahim, which no team really handled successfully last fall. Another linebacker to keep an eye on is NCAA record holder Ivan Pace Jr. In 2019, he registered six sacks in a single game against Akron and his pass rush abilities will be needed in order to pressure Morgan and make life easier for his secondary.

Prediction

I’ll throw a rough draft of a score in this one. It feels like a Minnesota 37, Miami (OH) 24 final. The Gophers feature a set of powerful blockers, an experienced quarterback, and of course, Ibrahim. Miami’s defense is typically stout but Minnesota presents a slew of unfavorable matchups for the RedHawks, and the presence of Ibrahim and the offensive line forces them to focus beyond their pass coverage woes. Gabbert and the offense will be able to air it out and put some points on the board, but it feels like Minnesota remains a slight step ahead and rows to a victory here. Sidenote: this will be the fourth meeting between P.J. Fleck and Chuck Martin. Fleck is currently 3-0.

Buffalo Bulls at Nebraska Cornhuskers

Saturday, Sept. 11, 2:30pm | BTN

Storylines for the Bulls: No MAC team had a worse offseason than the Buffalo Bulls. The sudden departure of head coach Lance Leipold in late April sent the program into a bit of a frenzy. Essentially, the entire coaching staff departed to Kansas with Leipold and a mass exodus of transfers ensued — including numerous projected starters. Buffalo, a team built on the foundation of a strong offensive line and dominant running game, lost three starters on the o-line and All-American running back Jaret Patterson. Buffalo has not won a MAC championship since 2008 and it will be a tall task to return to Ford Field after coming up short in 2018 and 2020.

Still, the MAC is wide open and Buffalo has a horde of stars back from the team that finished No. 25 in the final AP Poll. With new head coach Maurice Linguist on campus, there is hope that the 2021 iteration of the team is a reload instead of a rebuild.

How well do they match up?

We’ll certainly learn more about Nebraska in Week 0, but at the moment, this seems like an evenly-matched contest. Under Leipold, Buffalo enjoyed grounding the ball because the offense didn’t really need to pass to win — they only passed 10 times against Akron last year. It will be interesting to see how comparable the offensive approach is under Linguist and new offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery. The Bulls still return an All-MAC lineman in Jake Fuzak and a star running back in Kevin Marks, who averaged over 100 rushing yards per game (as a secondary back!) last season, so some personnel are there to keep the run game churning. Last November, Illinois laid down a solid blueprint to demonstrate how a ground-based offense can handle Nebraska, and Buffalo should try to follow suit. Defensively, the Bulls present a potent pass rush and averaged nearly three sacks per game last season after ranking in the top 10 in sacks in the FBS in 2019. Controlling the line of scrimmage and keeping Adrian Martinez in the pocket will be the decider in this one, as Nebraska’s passing attack hasn’t been its forté in the Scott Frost era.

Players to watch

Kevin Marks has the potential to produce some jaw-dropping numbers this season. The All-MAC running back didn’t quite garner the attention he deserved as Jaret Patterson was routinely posting 300 and 400-yard rushing performances for the same program. But in seven games last season, Marks quietly recorded 741 yards and seven touchdowns while sharing the backfield with the MAC Offensive Player of the Year. Marks also surpassed the 1,000-yard mark while playing second fiddle in 2019, so increased usage of the senior could be lethal for opponents.

Speaking of Jaret Patterson, his twin brother is still on campus. James Patterson is the starting middle linebacker for this defense and he racked up First Team All-MAC honors last fall. James averaged nine tackles per game last year and serves as the team’s premier run stopper. The senior plays with a degree of aggression too and forced four fumbles in 2018. He’s the quarterback of the defense and is the perfect specimen to jump into the QB spy role to counter Adrian Martinez.

Prediction

I’m going back and forth on this one, but I’ll settle with Nebraska. This has all the makings of a close, lower-scoring game with both teams grinding it out on the ground. By the time this game rolls around, the Cornhuskers will already have the Illinois game and a likely FCS win under their belt while Buffalo only experiences a trial run against an FCS team. The Cornhuskers’ offense doesn’t move the needle for me, but their defense does. That unit gave Iowa and Northwestern plenty of fits last season, and I think the linebacking group of JoJo Domann and Luke Reimer serves as the x-factor to give Nebraska a solid non-conference win.

Poll

Pick’em:

This poll is closed

  • 25%
    Nebraska
    (72 votes)
  • 36%
    Buffalo, but mostly for the bit
    (103 votes)
  • 37%
    Buffalo, because I earnestly believe they’ll win
    (105 votes)
280 votes total Vote Now

Ball State Cardinals at Penn State Nittany Lions

Saturday, Sept. 11, 2:30pm | FS1

Folly: Ball State enters the 2021 season full of confidence and momentum following last year’s MAC Championship and Arizona Bowl victory. The administration has been patient with head coach Mike Neu (22-34 in 5 seasons), and last year he re-paid them for their patience. The Cardinals won their final seven games, finishing the season 7-1 and capturing the Cardinals first MAC Championship since 1996. After defeating San Jose State 34-13 in the Arizona Bowl (the first bowl win in program history), the Cardinals finished the season ranked #23, also a program first. Combine all of that with the fact that the Cardinals have 20 starters returning, and you have a team full of confidence and ready to show the country that they can compete with anybody. Remember, the MAC did not play non-conference games last year, so the Cardinals have had this game against Penn State circled for quite some time. This is not your typical “cupcake” game for Penn State, though many casual fans may assume that when first seeing the schedule. Ball State has a veteran team with tons of talent at the skill positions, and they can certainly hang with Penn State if the Nittany Lions are not prepared.

Overall, the Cardinals program has more momentum now than it has since the Brady Hoke era. There is a sense that Neu is building something sustainable in Muncie, as he is a Ball State alum that has expressed his desire to stay and create something special at his alma mater. Penn State certainly has the talent edge in this game, but the Cardinals are no pushover.

How well do they match up?

I am a believer that football games are overwhelmingly won in the trenches. On the offensive line, the Cardinals have a veteran group led by All-MAC RG Curtis Blackwell. This group returns all 5 starters from last season, and 97 career starts overall. With that said, there are still some improvements that need to be made here. QB Drew Plitt was sacked 28 times in 8 games last year, and keeping him upright will go a long way towards the Cardinals success in this game. If Plitt has time to throw to his talented receivers, the Cardinals may have a shot. If PJ Mustipher and Jesse Luketa consistently find their way into the backfield, it will be a long day for Ball State fans.

On the other side of the ball, the Cardinals actually did a pretty decent job against the run last year. In giving up 136.3 yards per game, Ball State ranked fourth in the MAC and 32nd in the country. MAC Defensive Player of the Year Brandon Martin is back at MLB, and Chris Agyemang and Justen Ramsey solidify a strong defensive line. The struggles on defense for Ball State come through the passing game, as the Cardinals ranked 11thin the MAC in giving up 293.6 yards per game through the air in 2020. There is a lot of individual talent in the secondary, led by CB AJ Uzodinma and FS Bryce Cosby. The Cardinals will need those veterans to step up and solidify this defense on the back end if they want to compete with the likes of Penn State.

If the front seven can get pressure on Sean Clifford in this game, it will certainly make things easier on the secondary. If Clifford has time to throw to the likes of Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington, things could get away from Ball State quickly.

Players to Watch

Earlier, I mentioned Drew Plitt. He enters this year as one of the best quarterbacks in all of the group of 5, and he is set up to have a big senior year. Last year in eight games, Plitt threw for 2,154 yards on 65.6% completion, 17 TD’s and 6 INT’s. With a big season, you can expect to hear his name called in the late rounds of next springs NFL Draft.

A big part of Plitt’s success has been the talent around him at the skill positions, and the first person on that list is senior WR Justin Hall. The active NCAA leader in receptions (257 thus far in his career), Hall is looking to add to four incredibly productive seasons in Muncie. Hall led the Cardinals with 49 receptions, 665 yards, and 4 TD’s last year, and will certainly go down as one of the all time greats at Ball State.

On the defensive side of the ball, MLB Brandon Martin is the leader of the group. He led the MAC with 90 tackles last year and was eighth nationally with 11.3 tackles per game. He is the heart and soul of this defense, and is your typical rangy linebacker that can play sideline to sideline. If Ball State has any success slowing down the Nittany Lions, Martin will be a big part of it.

Prediction

I want to emphasize again for all of the Penn State fans reading, this is not your typical tune up game against a MAC school. Ball State is a veteran team loaded with talent, and are certainly capable of giving the Nittany Lions problems. I do not think the Cardinals will walk out of Beaver Stadium with a victory, but I do think the current spread of 21 is not giving Ball State enough credit. Simply because of their talent on offense, I think Mike Neu’s group can hang with the Nittany Lions for a half, maybe even three quarters. If Drew Plitt can get the ball into the hands of Justin Hall and Yo’Heinz Tyler, the Penn State secondary could have their hands full.

If I’m a Ball State fan, my concerns here come more on the defensive side of the ball. Penn State returns a veteran QB in Sean Clifford and has a number talented options at the skill positions. Ball State struggled against the pass last year, and Clifford could certainly have himself a big day. I see this as a one score game at half time, before the Nittany Lions are able to create some separation in the second half.

Penn State 42, Ball State 27

Poll

Which of these non-Nebraska games is the most likely upset?

This poll is closed

  • 24%
    WMU over Michigan
    (52 votes)
  • 54%
    Miami Hydroxide over Minnesota
    (115 votes)
  • 20%
    Balls Tate over Penns Tate
    (44 votes)
211 votes total Vote Now

Eastern Michigan Eagles at Wisconsin Badgers

6pm | FS1 | wisc -26 | O/U 52

We weren’t able to get an EMU preview. But feel free to vote in our poll below!

Poll

EMU? Wisconsin?

This poll is closed

  • 73%
    Badgers roll
    (83 votes)
  • 11%
    A close one!
    (13 votes)
  • 15%
    Exactly like the last EMU War
    (17 votes)
113 votes total Vote Now