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Beyond the Empire: B1G-MACtion, Pt. IV

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Getting to know a retooled NIU and a MAC front-runner Kent State, just in time for a pair of ranked matchups with Big Ten foes.

Kent State v Illinois

What, you thought you were done learning about the MAC?

This fits-and-starts learning process is on me—I owe a massive thank you to James Jimenez and the entire staff over at Hustle Belt, the best damn MAC news site in the entire internetosphere. They produced SO MUCH* preview material on the MAC that I didn’t quite know how to use it all, and the season has been so busy that I dropped the ball on circling back to talk some of the best MACtion shenanigans this season, like NIU’s wild 50-44 home loss to Wyoming last weekend.
*As in “we’re on page 20 of a 30-page Google Doc” much.

I’m going to circle back today to James’s so-far-prescient thoughts on the B1G-MAC Challenge in 2021, then we’ve got previews of both B1G-MAC games from this weekend.

Pt. IV: How Does the B1G-MAC Challenge Finish?

Ed. note: James answered these questions back in late August.

OTE: How do you see the B1G-MAC series shaking out in 2021? Any upsets you think we should be on the lookout for? [Not just in your own game(s) here, but conference-wide?] If you want, give an idea of how the 11 games finish up, record-wise.

James: As mentioned prior, we go more into detail on this in the latest edition of Ye Olde Roundtable, but I’m happy to sum it up here.

In a sentence, it’s not gonna go so hot for the MAC this season. But that’s okay, because the odds are usually against teams from the Best Little Conference In the Midwest, so that’s just par for the course.

Realistically, there will be a handful of games which should make B1G fans squirm, especially if they involve Kent State or Ball State, as they are two of the best teams in the conference. There’s been at least one B1G-MAC upset over the last decade or so, so I’m sure that streak will continue. Eastern is usually good for it, but they’re playing Wisconsin this year, who likes to eat MAC run defenses for breakfast, so I think that’s out of the cards.

I’d say getting to one win is the standard. If the MAC can get to two wins, that’s excellent. Three-plus? That’s excellent news. The four games I have my eyes on for potential upsets include: Buffalo vs. Nebraska; Miami vs. Minnesota; Kent State vs. Iowa; and Ohio vs. Northwestern. If the MAC can split these, they’re in a great spot.

Poll

The MAC is 0-5. Remaining B1G matchups: NIU-Michigan, Kent State-Iowa, Akron-OSU, Bowling Green-Minnesota, Kent State-Maryland, Ohio-Northwestern. How many wins?

This poll is closed

  • 3%
    3+
    (4 votes)
  • 10%
    2
    (13 votes)
  • 38%
    1 (tell us who in the comments!)
    (46 votes)
  • 47%
    0
    (58 votes)
121 votes total Vote Now

Since two of those four games are still ahead of us, let’s get you a couple of those previews by looking at the B1G-MAC matchups for this weekend!

September 18

Northern Illinois Huskies (1-1) at #25 Michigan Wolverines (2-0)

11am | BTN | Mich -27.5 | O/U 54

Dave Drury: The Huskies enter the 2021 season as massive underdogs. Last season Thomas Hammock made the choice to hit the reset button on the program and start from scratch, resulting in the vast majority of players being underclassmen and true freshmen. That trend continues this season; out of the 115 players listed on NIU’s roster 88 of them are freshmen (76.5%), nine are sophomores, and there are just 18 upperclassmen – eleven juniors and just seven seniors.

The good news, for Huskie fans, is that the NIU has 22 starters coming back this season and only lost five starting players from 2020 – a quarterback, a tight end, a wide receiver, a guard, and a defensive tackle – so the majority of the young players already have real in-game experience. To replace our quarterback, the Huskies were able to nab a transfer that Michigan is already familiar with: former Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi, who led the Spartans to a win over the Wolverines last season, joined NIU this spring and will be starting.

But, even with B1G talent at the QB position, the Huskies look to be vastly out-gunned in this game. Michigan is bigger, stronger, faster, and more experienced than the young group of freshmen the Huskies will be starting.

The one area that might be able to hang with the Wolverine offense is the NIU linebacking corps, which is led by a pair of super-super seniors – Kyle Pugh and Lance Deveaux Jr. Pugh is actually in his SEVENTH year of eligibility after struggling with injuries for a few seasons and getting a second chance with Covid keeping him a senior this season. Deveaux Jr., like Pugh, struggled with injuries before Covid allowed him to return for a sixth year in 2021.

There are also a few young, exciting players to keep an out for.

On offense, freshman running back Harrison Waylee showed great moves last season, averaging 4.3 yards per carry, and is primed to breakout this year with even more experience under his belt. Another freshman that looks to have a nice career in DeKalb is wide receiver Trayvon Rudolph, who initially broke out as a kick returner before also showing great escapability as a wide out leading to him being second on the team in receiving yards last year.

Defensively, the Huskies have a pair of players in the secondary that have shown great promise – freshman safety Devin Lafayette and sophomore cornerback Jordan Gandy. Both started all six games last season and were first and second on the team in tackles. Gandy finished first with 41 stops and had seven pass break ups and an interception while Lafayette had 36 tackles, a TFL, a sack, an interception, and a pass break up.

I don’t see this game going well for NIU. The Huskies might be able to start off strong and limit the yardage from Hassan Haskins and Ronnie Bell early on but, come the second half, the Wolverines will most likely begin to pull away and fast. Last season, it was larger plays that really hurt the Huskies. NIU’s defense gave up 27 plays that went for 25-yards or more, it wouldn’t surprise me to see a handful of those chunk plays in this game as well. I think Haskins finishes with near 150 yards on the ground and Michigan is able to burn the young secondary to a tune of 350+ passing yards.

All in all, Michigan takes this one but the young Huskies gain experience and, in a few years, become a very strong group in the MAC. But this season…not so much.

NIU – 17
Michigan - 42

Kent State Golden Flashes (1-1) at #5 Iowa Hawkeyes (2-0)

2:30pm | BTN | Iowa -23 | O/U 56.5

Storylines for the Golden Flashes

You know how Coastal Carolina felt like America’s team in 2020? The Kent State Golden Flashes certainly have that potential in 2021 because their offense is so exhilarating. Nobody scored more points per game last year than Kent State, which averaged 49.8. The Flashes displayed multidimensionality and ranked 10th in passing yards and second in rushing yards per game.

The end of the 2019 season proved the offensive outburst and 3-1 record in 2020 were no flukes. Kent State won four in a row to finish that year and dropped 51 on Utah State in the Frisco Bowl to secure its first bowl victory in program history.

Now, everything is trending upward in Kent. Head coach Sean Lewis has done a sensational job in guiding a program that nobody wanted to inherit after the 2017 season, and now the Flashes are pegged as favorites to come out of the MAC East. With the offensive firepower and a sensational quarterback in Dustin Crum, obtaining conference supremacy for the first time since 1972 is finally a feasible goal for Kent State.

How well do they match up?

Kent State is offense, offense, offense, and the unit operates with significant tempo. The Flashes benefit from frequent zone read schemes, halfback powers, and quick passes to their receivers near the sidelines. Every snap is a race to the line of scrimmage and MAC defenses were no match for the Flash Fast offense in 2020.

The defense leaves plenty to be desired. While Kent State’s secondary is led by a capable veteran group, the run defense needs some reworking after allowing the fifth-most rushing yards per game last year — they let Buffalo’s Jaret Patterson go for 408 yards and eight touchdowns in a single afternoon… Iowa exhibits the personnel on defense to stop even the most potent rushing attacks, and that could outweigh Kent State’s electrifying offense.

However, Dustin Crum and the Flashes’ offense is too explosive to be held to under two scores or fewer against Iowa’s suffocating unit, but I could see the Hawkeyes’ front seven generating some challenges for the Flashes’ blockers as the game progresses. Flip the field, and we’re looking at a potential field day from Tyler Goodson against a defense which allowed three halfbacks to rush for 160+ yards in four games last season.

Players to watch

Have I mentioned Dustin Crum? Let’s start the Heisman talk for this dual threat quarterback. In his last two seasons, he has 32 touchdown passes and only four interceptions. His completion percentage was a solid 69.3 in 2019 and he turned the amplifier up to 73.5 percent on 113 attempts last year. He’s not only a threat in the passing game, but his mobility throws defenses into disarray. Crum rushed for 707 yards and six touchdowns in 2019 and followed it up with 240 yards and four touchdowns in 2020. Far often, we assess quarterbacks as “dual threat” if they frequently operate as scramblers regardless of their passing ability. But Crum has it all — he is the essence of the phrase “dual threat.”

Cornerback K.J. Sherald missed the entirety of the 2020 season but he returns to bolster the secondary. He collected 90 tackles as a sophomore and 86 as a junior, presenting a solid takedown ability for a 5’9” defensive back. Sherald established himself as one of the premier playmakers on defense in 2019 by picking off three passes, often in vital situations in regard to Kent State’s bowl eligibility status. The one-on-one matchup with Tyrone Tracy should be an interesting pairing to keep an eye on.

Prediction

This is probably the best Kent State team of the 21st century. Unfortunately, the non-conference schedule is stacked with ranked opponents in Texas A&M (L, 41-10) and Iowa, as well as a date with Maryland. The Golden Flashes routinely schedule challenging non-conference slates, but they usually hang within these high-caliber opponents for a half before the steam runs out.

This battle at Kinnick feels like a victory by 17 to 20 points for Iowa, which pulls ahead in the second half — but only after the Flash Fast offense experiences some success in the opening frames. Still, this game presents an exciting opportunity to see what this juggernaut of an offense can do against arguably the best defense the Big Ten has to offer.

Poll

Any MAC surprises this week?

This poll is closed

  • 19%
    Yeah, one of the two covers the spread.Yeah, one of the two
    (23 votes)
  • 55%
    Nah.
    (64 votes)
  • 1%
    Yeah, both keep it close.
    (2 votes)
  • 8%
    DOWN GOES MICHIGAN
    (10 votes)
  • 14%
    DOWN GOES IOWA
    (17 votes)
116 votes total Vote Now

Our thanks, as always, to James and the whole Hustle Belt staff! Keep up with them over at Hustle Belt, and give Hustle Belt a follow on Twitter.