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October 18, 2013

NIU prep: CMU defense vs. NIU offense

The Chippewas are coming off one of the biggest wins in the Dan Enos era: a 26-23 road win at Ohio, a game in which CMU was an 18.5-point underdog. Sophomore running back Saylor Lavallii ran all over the Bobcats defense, to the tune of 184 yards on 26 carries, and redshirt freshman quarterback Cooper Rush had the best game of his young career, completing 20 of his 28 pass attempts for 224 yards and three touchdowns, with only one interceptions. One of those touchdowns was a five-yard, game-winning pass to junior receiver Courtney Williams with 22 seconds left that shocked the Homecoming crowd in Athens.

Northern Illinois is undefeated this season, with a 6-0 record and a No. 23 ranking in the AP Poll. Three weeks ago, the Huskies beat Purdue 55-24 in West Lafayette, tied for the biggest margin of victory by a MAC team over a Big Ten team. Along with the victory in West Lafayette, NIU also won at Iowa. Their win over the Hawkeyes is by far their best win. The rest of their wins have not extremely impressive. They have a 10-point win at Idaho, allowing 35 points to the No. 97 offense in the country, a four-point win over Eastern Illinois, a 14-point win over Kent State, who has the No. 106 offense and No. 111 defense, and a seven-point home win over Akron. Even the blowout win over Purdue does not carry as much weight as it would in years past. The Boilermakers are a really bad Big Ten team. They have the No. 119 offense in the country and have lost four of their six games by 30-plus points. Their only win was a six-point win over Indiana State, a FCS opponent.

Despite any issues with the schedule, there is a reason that the Huskies are a 15.5-point favorite in the game. NIU has the No. 14 offense in the country and the best offense in the MAC, averaging 507.8 yards-per-game, one of 17 teams in the nation averaging over 500 ypg. CMU, the 78th-ranked defense in the country, will have a tall task containing that offense. The Chippewas are ranked 105th in offense, averaging just 340 ypg. They have struggled with inconsistency, mainly because of up-and-down quarterback play, but when they've gotten good play from their signal-callers, they've been considerably better. It should help that NIU has the No. 108 defense in the nation.


NIU Rush Offense vs. CMU Rush Defense

Northern Illinois has the ninth-best rushing offense in the nation and the best in the conference. The Huskies are averaging 282.7 rushing ypg in six games this season. The next best rush offense in the MAC is Toledo, who averages 208.8 ypg and ran for 252 yards against CMU in the conference opener for both teams. The difference between NIU and Toledo is the difference between Toledo and Eastern Michigan, who has the eighth-best rush offense in the conference at 135.7 ypg. Needless to say, the Huskies are a very good running team.

They are led by redshirt junior tailback Cameron Stingily and fifth-year senior quarterback Jordan Lynch. Stingily is a power running back at 6-foot-1, 244 pounds and Lynch is a dynamic playmaker. Stingily has 656 yards and six touchdowns on 119 carries this season, while Lynch has 616 yards and four touchdowns on 106 carries. NIU will also get junior wide receiver Tommylee Lewis involved in the run game. Lewis has 163 yards on 12 carries, a 13.6 ypc average. While the Huskies are still without senior running back Akeem Daniels, who had 706 total yards on 88 touches last season and have now lost Keith Harris Jr. for the season, the Huskies still have running back depth and junior James Spencer will likely get the carries that don't go to Stingily, Lynch or Lewis.

Along with the dynamic playmakers, the Huskies likely have the best offensive line in the conference. They have four or five guys that could end up on an all-conference team. The average NIU offensive lineman is only 6-foot-4, 290.6 pounds, but they're all very athletic and perfect for this system and this blocking scheme. The unit is also one of the most experience in the country, with a combined 97 career starts. In terms of size, CMU actually matches up very well. The average Chippewa starting defensive lineman is 6-foot-3, 278 pounds. Their biggest job will be to keep blockers off linebackers Justin Cherocci and Shamari Benton, who both have 73 tackles this season and are tied for 13th in the country in tackles-per-game.

This rush offense has cut a bloody path through their schedule. The lowest single-game total they've had was the 163 yards they had in their opener against Iowa, which has the No. 32 rush defense. CMU didn't rush for that many yards in a game until their last two contests against Miami and Ohio. The scary part of this rush offense is the ceiling. They have rushed for 300-plus yards three times already in six games, including 454 yards on 63 carries at Kent State.

CMU has played better run defense in their last two games, holding the RedHawks to 123 yards, most of which came from quarterback Austin Gearing and only allowing Ohio to rush for 107 yards. But this is a different animal. Holding NIU under 200 yards would be an incredible defensive performance for CMU and likely keep them in the game into the fourth quarter.

NIU Pass Offense vs. CMU Pass Defense

Here's a quick recap of the conference awards that Jordan Lynch won in 2012: MAC MVP, MAC Offensive Player of the Year and All-MAC first team. Along with those awards, he was named an All-American by the Associated Press, Phil Steele, CBSSports.com and SI.com, and he finished seventh in the Heisman Trophy voting, all while leading NIU to an Orange Bowl, the first BCS berth for a MAC team. He had a pretty good year.

Lynch's stats have dropped a little bit from his 2012 season, but he's still having a very good season. He's on pace to rush for over 1,000 yards, but likely won't get near the 1,815 yards and 19 touchdowns that he had last season. A large part of that is due to Stingily's emergence. His 656 yards are already more than any NIU running back has last year, by a large margin in fact. If NIU plays 14 games like they did last year by reaching the MAC Championship, he is on pace to throw for 3,110 yards and 30 touchdowns, with nine interceptions. Last year, he threw for 3,138 with 25 touchdowns and six interceptions. There are a bunch of other quarterbacks in the MAC that play at an all-conference level: Terrance Owens, Tyler Tettleton, Keith Wenning, but Lynch is still the best signal-caller that the conference has to offer. Even though his passer rating has dropped almost 10 points this season and he is only fifth in the conference in pass efficiency, there isn't a quarterback in the MAC that scares me more than Jordan Lynch.

NIU does not have Martel Moore, who graduated after catching 75 passes for 1,083 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Redshirt junior Da'Ron Brown has become Lynch's top target this season. After only 17 receptions for 156 yards and two touchdowns last fall, Brown already has 424 yards and five touchdowns on 28 catches. Brown is the main deep threat for NIU. It's his job to take the top off the defense, while Lewis is the guy that gets the underneath routes. Lewis is an explosive playmaker and NIU likes to get him the ball and let him make things happen. He has 40 catches for 346 yards, a ypc average almost seven yards less than Brown. No other Husky has more than 10 catches this season. To put that in perspective, four players on the Chippewa roster have 10-plus catches in 2013. NIU feeds the ball to Brown and Lewis in the passing game. The biggest threat after those two is likely redshirt sophomore Juwan Brescacin, who has nine catches and average 15 ypc, just a tick below Brown's average.

The Chippewas have been surprisingly good at getting to the quarterback this year, getting sacks on 8.09 percent of pass plays, which is 11th in the country. NIU is 21st in the country in sacks-per-pass-attempt, only allowing sacks on 3.49 percent of attempts. The Huskies have a good offensive line and they have a quarterback who can avoid pressure. Starting defensive ends Jeremy Gainer and Louis Palmer each have two sacks, but the Chippewas have been able to get pressure off blitzes. Cherocci has three sacks. Benton and free safety Avery Cunningham each have two.

The Huskies are 50th in pass efficiency and CMU is 111th in pass efficiency defense. The Chippewas have trouble stopping the pass when they aren't getting sacks or creating turnovers. Tettleton threw for 319 yards last week, but CMU forced him into a pair of interceptions and even though they only got one sack, they still created some pressure, including a crushing hit by Joe Ostman on Ohio's last drive that knocked Tettleton out of the game. The recipe for success will have to be the same against the Huskies, but it's going to be a bit harder to get that kind of pressure on Lynch. He's a better scrambler than Tettleton and NIU has a better offensive line.

Special Teams

After the first five field goals of his career, freshman kicker Ron Coluzzi has struggled in recent weeks, going 2-for-6 on field goal attempts in the last three games. NIU's kicker situation is up in the air, with senior Mathew Sims day-to-day heading into the weekend. Sims was all-conference in 2011 and was 10-for-12 on field goal attempts this season. If he can't go, junior Tyler Wedel will handle the kicking duties. Wedel was 2-for-4 against Akron, with two of his attempts blocked. Wedel is also the punter and kickoff specialist for NIU. He is averaging 42.6 yards-per-punt. CMU senior punter Richie Hogan is averaging 43.3 ypp.

NIU has the edge in punt coverage. The Huskies are 45th in net punting and the Chippewas are 105th. Their punt returners are close to equal: NIU is 64th in punt returns and CMU is 69th. The Chippewas have a slight advantage in kickoff returns: NIU is 80th in kickoff returns and CMU is 46th. Both teams do have good returners. Titus Davis will likely handle punt returns again and Courtney Williams will take kickoff returns. Both are threats to break a good return. Lewis takes both punt returns and kickoff returns for the Huskies.

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