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Beyond the Empire: Previewing the B1G-MAC Games, Part V

Who wins the MAC? Can Northwestern and Maryland avoid the last landmines for the conference?

NCAA Football: Akron at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Last weekend Iowa got off to a slow start against Kent State before slowly pulling away, while Michigan blew the brakes off Buffalo.

But we might also see a pair of MAC teams not so overwhelmed by their Big Ten counterparts this weekend. (There’ll still be a couple beatdowns, but...)

To help us preview the MAC and figure out who will win the conference, we enlisted our friend James Jimenez and a couple other writers over at Hustle Belt to help us preview the B1G-MAC matchups in 2021. You might’ve seen their other efforts (Part 1, Part 2-3, Part 4).

Now here’s what to expect this weekend:

The Previews: September 25

Ohio Bobcats at Northwestern Wildcats

11am | BTN | NU -14.5 | O/48

Keith Gregorski: Northwestern vs the MAC, historically:

  • vs Ohio (since 1962): Northwestern leads the series 3-1
  • vs Mid-American Conference (MAC) Opponents (since 1962): 18-11
  • Last meeting vs MAC: 2018, Akron won 39-34

The Bobcats enter the 2021 season on the heels of a major change, as the MAC’s all-time winningest head coach Frank Solich stepped down this summer to focus on his health. Ohio offensive coordinator and assistant head coach Tim Albin was promoted to head coach on a four-year deal, retaining his defensive staff, and promoting from within to cover the offensive coordinator between QB coach Scott Isphording and co-coordinator Allen Rudolph.

While Albin will surely have some new wrinkles, Ohio’s basic schemes and core values were established with significant input from the current coaching staff and should continue: ball security, physicality, running game with explosive pass plays, 4-3.

Ohio matches up well with Northwestern and should be able to compete if the Bobcats can approach Northwestern’s physicality.

Bobcats’ offense: In the last full three seasons, Ohio ranked in the top 20 in scoring offense in the FBS and one reason for their success is they have a strong running game with which they integrate explosive plays. Ohio only played three games last year due to COVID, but in their last full season (2019), Ohio had the MAC’s top two RBs in yards per carry with a 6.4 and 6.3 average and WRs who finished first and sixth in the MAC in yards per reception with 19.8 and 17.0.

Ohio invests heavily in offensive line recruiting and will bring a line with great size and interior athleticism and experience to Evanston in 2021, which should help the Bobcats match Northwestern’s physicality. Ohio’s left tackle TJ Jackson, a Virginia Tech transfer, is 6’7,” 375 lbs., and the interior is led by right guard Hagen Meservy, who has 39 career Ohio appearances. In addition to being well-schooled in the techniques of Ohio offensive line play, Meservy has shown some unconventional athleticism for a 6’3,” 300 pound man, like on this play where he does a cartwheel (bottom of the screen here).

Operating behind the offensive line will be multiple backs featuring 2020 All-MAC performer De’Montre Tuggle, who has a career average of 6.8 yards per carry with 19 touchdowns, including a kickoff return for touchdown.

Despite all the changes in Northwestern’s defense during the offseason including replacing the defensive coordinator and the entire starting linebacking corps, Wildcat teams under head coach Pat Fitzgerald are typically defensively stout against the run and could give Ohio’s running game its best test of the season.

If the Wildcats slow the Bobcats’ rushing attack, explosive plays would be critical to keep Ohio in this one, and it wouldn’t take many, considering Northwestern games under Fitzgerald have typically been low scoring affairs, with the Wildcats winning 25-16 on average last year.

And Ohio has some playmakers who can deliver explosive plays like QBs, Kurtis Rourke and Armani Rogers, both of whom will probably play. Rourke has nice touch, very good accuracy, and a great deep ball which can take advantage of man coverage matchups and throwing deep off plays with run action, like speed options. Rogers at 6’4,” 225 pounds has LB size and WR speed on par with many B1G players. All it takes is a crease on an option play or draw and Rogers can cash in for big yardage.

Bobcats’ defense: The Bobcats ran 4-3 base defense with a lot of cover 4 which could match up well vs Northwestern. As the Wildcats were predominantly a run team in the past few years, running about 60% of the time, the extra run support the Bobcats can get from the safeties in this base defense should help against Northwestern’s primary attack on early downs.

When passing, Northwestern recently likes to roll the pocket, getting the QB on the edge for a pass or run. Ohio returns players on the edge like DE Will Evans, whose discipline created by extensive experience (39 appearances) should be a factor in limiting those types of plays by preventing the QB from getting to the edge easy with regularity.

Teams typically attempt to take some shots deep against Ohio’s corners, who can be on “an island” in the coverages the Bobcats run, but it is uncertain whether the Wildcats will have the personnel that can take advantage of those coverages. Northwestern’s starting QB senior Hunter Johnson is a five-star recruit but his career production to-date has not yet matched the stars. Johnson has 15 career appearances at Clemson and Northwestern, completing 52.5 percent of his passes for 666 yards, with a touchdown/interception ratio of 3-5, and 60 yards rushing on 50 carries.

Northwestern will also be looking for some playmakers to emerge at WR, which should make the job easier for Ohio’s CBs, if there is any truth to publications like Phil Steele’s, which rank the Wildcats WR group last in the B1G heading into 2021.

One thing that will help the Bobcats hold up defensively is they should have a healthy, quality, deep line by gameday. Ohio’s ability to substitute quality depth to keep the defensive line fresh will be essential for holding up for four quarters against a physical team like Northwestern, and the Bobcats should be able to go 2-3 deep at some DE/DT positions.

Bobcats’ Special Teams: Field goals and punts will be an area to watch for the Bobcats if this game is close due to the inconsistency of these units last season. Ohio broke in two new specialists last year to mixed results, based on a limited sample size: 2-6 on field goals and 36.9-yard average on 13 punts.

Prediction: The Bobcats match up well in this game as it should be a low scoring affair, they have home run hitters in Tuggle, Rourke, and Rogers, among others, that can turn in explosive plays if the running game falters, and the risker aspects of the Ohio coverages may not be exploitable by Northwestern personnel.

The Bobcats hang their hats on being a tough, physical squad, but the toughness and physicality that a coach Fitzgerald-led Wildcat team is on a level Ohio will not typically see.

In the Bobcats favor, they have size and depth on the offensive and defensive lines. Also, the Bobcats have a chance to ramp up their physicality because they play a highly-physical opponent in 23rd ranked Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns with nine days to recover from that game before they face Northwestern.

Despite significant roster turnover, Northwestern is at home and coming off a B1G West title in 2020, so the Wildcats will probably win this game by 10-14 points but the Bobcats should keep it close and can win it if they win the turnover battle by a margin of +1 or +2.



This poll is closed

  • 9%
    NU big
    (6 votes)
  • 54%
    NU little
    (35 votes)
  • 35%
    (23 votes)
64 votes total Vote Now

Bowling Green Falcons at Minnesota Gophers

11am | ESPNU | Minn -31 | O/U 51

James J: Bowling Green has a proud football tradition. In fact, when they were competing against PJ Fleck and Western Michigan in the MAC, they won two MAC titles but since then the wheels have fallen off. The Falcons failed to win a game last fall going 0-5, ending a streak of back-to-back 3-9 seasons. The Falcons haven’t had a winning season since a 2015 MAC championship.

They enter the 2021 hit hard by transfers, including that of star back Andrew Clair, who is now at Northwestern. They have just 16 players who have started before this season and are the youngest team in the nation.

How we they match up against a Big Ten team? Not very well. As mentioned before, the Falcons are the youngest team in the FBS and even have a true freshmen center. Against Tennessee, they weren’t able to run the ball or stop the run and had to find gimmick plays to create offense. Even without Mo Ibrahim, I’d imagine a long day for the Falcon front seven.

Offensively, the Matt McDonald to Austin Osborne (two power five transfers) connection could be enough to give the Falcon offense a respectable showing.

Give us a player or two to watch: Linebacker Darren Anders could fit in with the Gopher roster. He is a sideline to sideline type who should post an impressive tackle total. Austin Osborne, a transfer from Washington, is 6’2 with speed and played with QB Matt McDonald in high school.

BGSU won’t be shut out because of kicker Nate Needham, who hit from 42 and 50 in the opener against Tennessee.

How do you see the game finishing? I feel like the game will be similar to what we saw when Bowling Green played Tennessee, a 38-6 loss. It will take a near perfect game for the young Falcons to win and probably a few gimmick plays to keep it close.

I’d expect Minnesota to be able to win by double digits and to play many of their reserves.


Line’s, uh...

This poll is closed

  • 47%
    Gophers big
    (36 votes)
  • 38%
    Gophers scrape out a four-score win
    (29 votes)
  • 6%
    Gophers in a squeaker
    (5 votes)
  • 7%
    (6 votes)
76 votes total Vote Now

Kent State Golden Flashes at Maryland Terrapins

2:30pm | BTN | MD -14.5 | O/U 70

Zach Follador: Kent State enters the 2021 season with a momentum that Golden Flashes fans are unaccustomed to. For a program that hadn’t experienced consecutive winning seasons since the 1970’s and who had never won a bowl game, the success of the past two years has been a pleasant surprise in northeast Ohio. Head coach Sean Lewis has rebuilt the program in his image, with the FlashFAST offense being the center of everything.

The signs of progress first became apparent at the end of the 2019 season. Sitting at 3-6, the Flashes won their last three games of the season to achieve bowl eligibility. Lewis’ squad then went onto defeat Utah State 51-41 in the Frisco Bowl for the first bowl victory in program history.

Obviously, last year was disrupted because of the pandemic. The Flashes only played three games, but the offensive numbers they managed in that small sample size were staggering. Kent State led the FBS in both total offense and scoring offense, averaging 606.5 yards per game and 49.8 points per game. This offense is not a unit to take lightly, and the Flashes are eager to show their firepower against P5 opponents this year (there are three of them on the schedule).

Sean Lewis was just given a contract extension through 2025, however it’s likely that a larger program will come calling this offseason if Kent State continues to progress. 16 starters return from last years’ team (10 on offense), and this feels like the most talented squad that the Flashes have fielded in quite some time.

How well do they match up? As mentioned above, 10 starters return from last year’s high-powered offense. This is a unit that could give even the most talented defenses a problem, led by the strong armed Dustin Crum at QB. Crum completed 73.5% of his passes last year, with 1,181 yards, 12 TD’s and 2 INT’s. Crum and his receivers, led by Ja’Shaun Poke and Syracuse transfer Nykeim Johnson, will give the Maryland secondary all they can handle. This offense isn’t one dimensional, and the Terps will have to be wary of the Kent State rushing attack as well. Marquez Cooper and Bryan Bradford both return at running back this year to give the Flashes a solid ground game, and four starters return on the offensive line as well. This is an offense with very few question marks.

On the other side of the ball, there are some issues. The Flashes gave up 262 yards per game on the ground last year, good for 11th in the MAC and 126th the FBS. If Kent State wants to reach another bowl this season, they must get better against the run. There’s simply no way around it. Defensive end Zayin West is back to lead the defensive line this year, and Mandela Lawrence-Burke gives a veteran presence to the linebacking corps. For Kent State to have a chance against P5 teams such as Maryland, they must get improvement from their front seven on defense. There are some veterans on the back end in the secondary, and the Flashes were not bad against the pass last year. If the defense can improve its tackling and become stout against the run, they have a chance to have a great season.

Players to Watch: The aforementioned Dustin Crum at QB will be one of the best players in the MAC this year. Since taking over the starting job from Woody Barrett in week two of 2019, the stats that Crum has produced have been staggering: 299 of 425 (70.3%), 3,803 yards, 32 TD’s, and 4 INT’s. Not only does he have a strong arm, but he plays the position efficiently and without turning the ball over. If that’s not enough, he has also rushed for 947 yards and 10 TD’s during that same time frame. He is a true dual threat, and the key to everything that Kent State does on offense.

His partner in the backfield is RB Marquez Cooper, who burst onto the scene last year and led the Golden Flashes in rushing with 291 yards (5.0 yards per carry) and 5 TD’s in four games. Cooper’s 107 yard, 3 TD performance against rival Akron in November showed his potential, and he’s got a veteran offensive line in front of him to open up running lanes. Expect a big year from him.

On the defensive side of the ball, Kent State fans are excited for new transfer, and former Maryland Terrapin, Antwaine Richardson at strong safety. Richardson started 15 games for the Terrapins over the past three years and will certainly be looking to make an impact when his new squad returns to College Park.

Prediction: I expect this to be an old school shoot out. With eight starters back on offense, including Taulia Tagovailoa and Rakim Jarrett, I don’t think the Terrapins will have any problem scoring on the Golden Flashes. While the Kent State pass defense produced good numbers last year, I also must point out that they weren’t challenged much. Two of their four games came against Akron and Bowling Green, two of the worst offenses in the FBS last year. I don’t foresee the Flashes defense being able to stop the Terrapins.

On the other side of the ball, Kent State will certainly give Maryland problems. The Flashes offense is legitimately lethal, and this is a Maryland defense that can certainly be had. I expect a big day from both quarterbacks in this matchup, but at the end of the day the depth and talent on Maryland’s roster will prevail. Kent State will give the Terrapins a scare, but I think Mike Locksley and company will pull away in the fourth quarter to get the victory.

Maryland 45, Kent State 38


Another upset?

This poll is closed

  • 38%
    Nah, Terps cover
    (41 votes)
  • 45%
    It’s close, but Terps win
    (49 votes)
  • 15%
    (17 votes)
107 votes total Vote Now

Akron Zips at #10 Ohio State Buckeyes

6:30pm | BTN | OSU -48.5 | O/U 67

Gregorski: The Zips team heading to Columbus this year is a lot different from one in 2018 that came home from Evanston with more than a million dollars and a 39-34 win over Northwestern. Akron is in the midst of a full-blown rebuild under third-year head coach Tom Arth, but is starting to take shape after some sizable, predictable, growing pains.

Here is what the Zips will bring to The Shoe and the very predictable outcome.

The Zips are, on the whole, a very young squad, as 72 players listed on the online roster are freshman or redshirt freshman.

The offense is probably the strongest side of the ball at this point in the rebuild, with some key upperclassmen sprinkled in among the underclassmen.

The offensive line started four freshmen in 2020 led by super senior center Bryce Petersen, who enters 2021 with 30 career starts for Akron. The group as a whole is talented but probably a year or two away from their best work, needing to add strength and experience. Redshirt freshman LT Xavior Gray has looked good for a young player and at 6’9,” 315 lbs., has the size and length to compete with most opponents. The offensive line is a work-in-progress on pass blocking, surrendering 4.3 sacks per game in 2020 against an all-MAC schedule.

The unit did take a big step forward in rushing offense, where it increased its paltry production of 48 yards per game in 2019 to 142 yards per game in 2020.

One reason for the improved rushing game was junior RB Teon Dollard’s explosion on to the scene. A community college transfer in 2020, Dollard earned First-Team, All-MAC honors in his first MAC season, rushing for 666 yards, 5.95 yards per carry, in a six-game season.

Unfortunately for the Zips, Dollard’s status for 2021 remains unknown as he was involved in an offseason incident that left him suspended from the team as of the start of fall camp. If Dollard is not back by gametime, Akron will probably go with a combination of Indiana transfer Cole Gest and redshirt freshman Anthony Williams Jr. or freshman Jonzell Norris.

Who will start at QB for the Zips is unknown as Arth typically reveals his starter near or after kickoff of the first game, but the top candidates are senior Kato Nelson, JC transfer DJ Irons, and last year’s starter redshirt freshman Zach Gibson.

Nelson missed 2020 recovering from surgery but is healthy and ready to go this year. Nelson is a solid veteran QB who would provide needed experience, success, and leadership to the offense. Nelson led the Zips to the MAC championship game as a freshman in 2017 and has over 5,000 career passing yards with a solid TD/INT ratio of 34-16.

The Zips QB will have some solid options in the passing game, starting with emerging playmaker WR junior George Qualls, who caught 12 passes for 160 yards in six games last year. Big-play threat WR Michael Mathison returns, showing some explosiveness at WR as well as on kickoffs. Tony Grimes is a freshman walk-on who battled his way onto the field in 2020, catching 12 passes for 130 yards. Grimes will make the tough catches and move the chains.

Akron’s Defense: Akron struggled defensively last season, surrendering 41 points and 250 yards rushing per game.

The Zips did play banged-up on defense in 2020 and should be better this year with a return to health and more experience but will not be able to compete with OSU’s rushing attack which features two of the best OTs in the B1G in Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere, veteran RB Master Teague, and ESPN five-star freshman Treveyon Henderson.

The Zips’ front seven is young but is starting to come together. The defensive line has some front-line starters on the rise like sophomore Bryce Wilson and Nazir Sy, who should show some fight against OSU, but the group lacks experience at DE and any significant proven depth.

The heart and soul of the defense is All-MAC inside linebacker junior Bubba Arslanian, who will be making tackles all over the field vs OSU including on special teams. In six games last year, Arslanian had 72 tackles, three sacks, and a fumble forced and recovered.

Akron added an important piece in Michigan State transfer ILB Jeslord Boateng, who, at 230 lbs., has the size to hold up in the middle of the field against OSU.

The secondary is led by a young player on the rise in sophomore CB AJ Watts, who earned Second-Team All-MAC honors in 2020. At 6’1,” 192 lbs., Watts has the size to match up with most receivers. Watts is a very willing tackler, finishing second on the team in tackles in 2020 and a good pass defender, finishing second in the MAC in interceptions last year with two.

Prediction: Games are won and lost in the trenches and Akron does not have the experience on the offensive line or depth on the defensive line to compete for the long haul in this one.

OSU will be reloading with at least six freshman starters in 2021, not including a freshman punter and kicker, but draw replacements from elite recruiting classes including five-star freshman LG Paris Johnson and DE Jack Sawyer.

By week four of the season, OSU should have worked out any kinks caused by the reload, and will, in likelihood, be playing backups against the Zips by the second half.



This poll is closed

  • 52%
    Ohio State covers
    (34 votes)
  • 47%
    Ohio State does not cover
    (31 votes)
65 votes total Vote Now

Part IV: Predictions: Game and Season

OTE: Who wins the MAC West and East this year and how does the MAC Championship shake out in Detroit? (It’s our favorite game of the year to attend.)

James: We took pretty good care of this question in our latest edition of Ye Olde Roundtable, but the majority consensus seems to be that Kent State will be the team to take home the trophy for the first time in over 50 years.

Simply put, the Flashes are the favorite by a mile in the MAC East, with Buffalo’s late offseason changes and Ohio’s transition of coaching perhaps taking the normal challenge away from the top of the table. That said, there’s a chance that 2019 champion Miami will have something to say after only being able to play a handful of games in 2020. KSU’s offensive firepower, on paper, is one of the best units in the country, and if they continue scoring at such an elite clip, no MAC defense should be able to hold them at bay.

We were a bit more split on the idea of who would come out in the West. As per usual, it’s a gauntlet. Last season, it was a MAC title essentially decided on two game-winning field goals, so it truly is anyone’s game. Ball State was the preseason selection by the coaches, but our panel named two other teams as potential winners, with Western Michigan and Toledo proving to be popular picks as well. In reality, any of those three could win it all if the pieces fall into the right place.

My personal opinion is that it’ll be a big of a slugfest between Kent State and Western Michigan when we get down to it in Detroit, which means it’ll be appointment television as always. Western’s offense isn’t quite Kent State’s, but it’s nothing to shake a stick at either, and it has a better defense than the Flashes as well, which should help them keep the game close. Ali Fayad and Ralph Holley return to the defensive line to bring a good pass rush to the table, which should be a fun chess match to watch against the pass-heavy KSU attack.

It’s hard to go against the Flashes at this juncture, however, so suffice to say they’re the likely favorite to win it all.


Who wins the MAC in 2021?

This poll is closed

  • 47%
    Kent State
    (33 votes)
  • 14%
    (10 votes)
  • 21%
    Western Michigan
    (15 votes)
  • 2%
    Central Michigan
    (2 votes)
  • 7%
    (5 votes)
  • 5%
    Someone else
    (4 votes)
69 votes total Vote Now

Thanks to Keith, James, Zach, and all the gang at Hustle Belt for answering our questions! Be sure to give them a follow on Twitter and check in over at Hustle Belt for regular updates and news on great Midwestern football!