Preview: Chippewas host Huskies in battle for first place

Defensive Coordinator Robb Akey talks to his team during the homecoming game on Sat. Oct. 16 at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.

Had the idea of Central Michigan hosting a Mid-American Conference West Division-leading Northern Illinois been hatched in the summer, many would've raised an eyebrow. After all, how could the team that finished winless just one season prior ascend to the top of the pecking order in such a short time?

If there's a team that isn't surprised by this, it's the Chippewas. After all, coach Jim McElwain led a similar turnaround in his first year at the helm, taking the cellar dwelling Chippewas to the MAC title game in his first year. 

Now, CMU (4-3, 2-1 MAC) will get a chance to knock NIU (5-2, 3-0 MAC) from the ranks of the MAC unbeaten when the two teams square off at noon Saturday at Kelly/Shorts Stadium. A Chippewa win would put the team in, at worst, a first place tie atop the MAC West. 

"Excited about this weekend's game," McElwain said. "Unbelievable what they've done with the program. Thomas (Hammock) has done an unbelievable job." 

Meet the opponent

The Huskies are led on offense by quarterback Rocky Lombardi, who transferred to the program after four seasons at Michigan State. In the former Spartan, the Huskies have a rock-steady leader who pilots the offense with composure. 

Lombardi has thrown for 973 yards and six touchdowns through the Huskies' first seven games. His leading receiver is Tyrice Richie, who has 333 yards receiving on 32 catches. 

Despite the reliable passing attack, NIU thrives in the run game. Hammock, the team's third-year head coach, is a former NIU running back and has molded the team in his identity. Four different running backs have logged at least 200 yards rushing on the season. 

The youth and balance give the Huskies a running back-by-committee approach. 

"These guys are so young in their development that they don't have a lot of equity," Hammock said of the running backs. "The best guy is gonna play." 

Harrison Waylee, the team's leading rusher, has missed each of the last two games and is uncertain to play against the Chippewas. Antario Brown, another running back who has dealt with injuries, will play. Other options in the backfield include Jay Ducker and Clint Ratkovitch. 

"They're very, very physical," McElwain said. "They play their tails off. This will be a great test to see how our guys are and if we can match their toughness. That's got to be a huge piece of this game." 

Defensively, linebacker Lance Deveaux Jr. anchors the unit. On the season, he has 39 tackles and four for loss. C.J. Brown is the leading tackler, notching 50 total while Jaden Dolphin has the team's only interception. 

As a team, NIU ranks fourth in total offense and eighth in total defense among the MAC. Its rushing offense leads the conference, while the passing attack ranks last. Despite missing the last two games, Waylee is the league's top rusher. 

Big question: Can Chippewas match NIU's physicality? 

McElwain said it himself: The Chippewas need to be equal to or outdo the toughness of the Huskies. As with most power run teams, NIU employs a revolving door of backs that can burn defenses at any times. The unit employs a 'death by 1,000 paper cuts' approach, with a series of short, efficient runs leading to the big play. 

This will put pressure on CMU's front line, which has been equally as good in terms of keeping a rotation. However, after a solid half against Toledo, the unit spent more time on the field while the offense struggled and began to break because of it. 

"With their offense, you can't get tired of having gap responsibility," McElwain said. "Cause they'll hit you with a big one and they've got plenty of guys they can do that with." 

Key to victory: Sustain offensive momentum

The Huskies have intercepted just one pass all year, while CMU quarterback Daniel Richardson has thrown just two. This bodes well for the offense, as NIU ranks eighth in passing defense. The Chippewas should be able to generate the explosive plays that are important for success in McElwain's playbook. 

The challenge will be sustaining that momentum. After a fast start in week seven against Toledo, the Chippewas went the final three quarters without a touchdown. This won't cut it against the physical Huskies, who play smash mouth football until the final whistle. 

Richardson has plenty of weapons around him. Getting players like Kalil Pimpleton and Dallas Dixon the ball often will be paramount throughout the game. Generating and sustaining momentum will go a long way for the Chippewas on their quest to jump into a first place tie atop the MAC West. 

Northern Illinois (5-2, 3-0) at Central Michigan (4-3, 2-1)

All-time series: Central Michigan leads, 30-22-1

Last meeting: Central Michigan 40, Northern Illinois 10

Time: Noon E.T. 

Stadium: Kelly/Shorts Stadium

Location: Mount Pleasant, Michigan

Odds: CMU -4.5

Over/Under: 57.5

TV: ESPNU (John Schriffen, Dustin Fox)

Radio: 98.5 WUPS, Varsity Network (Adam Jaksa, Brock Gutierrez, Chris Jared)