Preview: CMU gears up for first mid-week matchup against NIU

Sarasota junior Jacques Bristol celebrates after a play during the game against South Alabama on Saturday, Sept. 10 at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.

In the Mid-American Conference, the conference slate has entered the “Midweek MACtion” portion of the schedule. 

For much of the College Football community, this fact is nothing more than a trivial checkpoint in the overall FBS schedule that signals the forthcoming College Football Playoff rankings. 

But for college football diehards and MAC faithful alike, that means that the meat of conference play has arrived, lending itself to what should be an exciting race to Ford Field.

However, for Central Michigan football, it appears that conference championship hopes have faded. 

The Chippewas currently sit at the bottom of the MAC West standings, tied with Wednesday’s opponent Northern Illinois at 1-3 in conference play. Both teams are currently three games back from the lead.

To maintain bowl eligibility and avoid a losing record, CMU will have to win out to reach the six-win mark - a feat that many fans and media members assumed would be achievable, if not a virtual lock.

Head coach Jim McElwain isn’t blind to the fact that his team has underperformed relative to the expectations placed on it heading into the season. 

He also sees the opportunity for growth despite the results thus far.

“We've already ruined the fact we haven't won at home," McElwain said. "That's the number one goal going into every season. So you know, that's the most important thing you gotta do is protect your home field. Right now, we aren't doing that. Yet, every week no matter what you do, no matter what you do in life, you know, you got to recenter and end goals might not be there, but you readjust, and you come back. You certainly don't throw the towel in. And, you know, it's my responsibility to get them back and get them going.”

Meet the opponent

Northern Illinois finds itself in quite a similar situation to CMU. Both teams were ranked high in preseason rankings thanks to very strong finishes to the 2021 season, with the former winning the MAC Championship over Kent State, while the latter beat Washington State in the Sun Bowl.

Both teams have also gotten inconsistent play from the quarterbacks that led their respective offenses to season-long success a season ago, albeit for different reasons.

The Huskies have trotted out three different starting quarterbacks this season due to injuries. Last season's signal-caller and Michigan State transfer Rocky Lombardi, started the first few games before going down with a leg injury. 

NIU then turned to redshirt freshman Ethan Hampton, who also got just a few games before sustaining an injury against Toledo, which has kept him out of action since. 

Sophomore Justin Lynch has taken over as the starter in NIU’s last two contests, during which NIU beat Eastern Michigan (although Lynch only registered one completion on his lone passing attempt), and lost to Ohio, where he had his best statistical performance of the season through the air with nine completions for 118 yards. 

Lombardi, meanwhile, saw some opportunity as a passer against Eastern Michigan (11 completions for 115 yards) but was held out of the game against Ohio. It is not clear at this point if NIU will split reps between its quarterbacks on Wednesday, nor who the starter will be.

While uncertainty plagues the Huskies’ quarterback position, their rushing attack has been the driving force of their offense, producing 202.3 yards per game, compared to 195.5 passing yards per game. Led by sophomore running backs Harrison Waylee and Antario Brown, NIU currently ranks second in the MAC in rushing yards per game.

The Huskies’ defensive unit is highlighted by sophomore safety C.J. Brown, who earned a First Team All-MAC nod in 2021. Brown was also named the Defensive Player of the Game in last year’s MAC Championship game. 

Sophomore linebacker Daveren Rayner leads the team with 8.9 tackles per game, while senior defensive lineman Michael Kennedy leads NIU in sacks (4.5) and TFLs (5.5).

Big question: How does CMU handle the QB position?

CMU’s inconsistencies on offense have prompted McElwain to reexamine the quarterback position. 

However, McElwain remains undecided on who will lead the team forward.

"We've got packages for all of them," McElwain said. "And you know really want to see how the team moves and most importantly, you know, not turning the ball over, getting first downs. So we will give them opportunities to go in and play and move the team.

Sophomore Daniel Richardson has started every game this season but hasn’t been able to match his level of play from last season when he won the starting job over Washington transfer Jacob Sirmon. 

Richardson, who’s been tasked with leading this offense without his top playmakers from last season, has struggled with the additional workload added to his plate. While Richardson looked exceptional in week one against Oklahoma State, his play (along with the rest of the offensive production) has since declined.

Redshirt freshman Jase Bauer has shown he can move the offense. In last week’s loss to Bowling Green, Richardson split snaps with Bauer in the first half, and was ultimately benched in the second half for Bauer (save for one series when Bauer was out temporarily with an injury).

“Yeah, you know, we felt that you know, we were gonna put him in some series anyway,” McElwain said after the game. “(We) just felt he was giving us a little bit of a spark. He did some OK eight things when he was in there, missed a (pass) down there, going in, that probably would have been a touchdown. But you know, that's all part of playing the position and seeing it on film and, and getting better.”

Bauer has earned praise from his teammates for his ability to lead a huddle in his limited opportunities.

“I thought he did a really good job coming in last game,” said senior tight end Joel Wilson. “You know, not betting on anything, he came in, and he didn't blink. He wasn't worried or scared to go out there. And he did a good job stepping up for us. So I mean, as far as that goes, going forward, I think he's gonna continue to do a good job.”

Key to victory: Defensive line domination

While not many positional groups have seen elevated play compared to last year, an argument can be made that the defensive line has been just as good as last season's unit, despite losing a few key pieces. 

One member of that unit who continues to be a key cog, however, is junior defensive lineman Jacques Bristol. Bristol stressed the importance of staying the course and continuing to elevate their level of play up front. 

“Each and every day going out there and giving the energy and giving it our all,” Bristol said.  “Knowing that we have depth on our d-line. Just going out there and giving the team energy and being consistent as a group, not just as individuals, and bringing each other along, even when we fall. We (are) picking each other up, and just being brothers.”

The Chippewas will need another big performance from the defensive line considering the Huskies’ prowess running the ball. If they are able to limit chunk plays on the ground, and get to the quarterback in passing situations, they can make NIU’s offensive unit uncomfortable. If they do not manage to control the tempo up front, CMU could be in for a long day defensively.

Central Michigan (2-6) vs Northern Illinois (2-6)

All-time series: 31-25-1 Central Michigan

Time: 7:00 p.m. ET

Date: Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2022

Stadium: Huskie Stadium

Location: DeKalb, Illinois

Odds: NIU -6

Over/Under: 56.5


Radio: 98.5 WUPS (Adam Jaksa, Brock Gutierrez)