Wednesday night's game is critical for Northern Illinois and Toledo. Both teams need a win in order to either stay or climb atop the division.
And for both teams, a win could mean a missed opportunity at the MAC title. No pressure, though.
Ever since losing its season opener to Iowa, Northern Illinois hasn't looked back. The Huskies have reeled off nine consecutive wins and are undefeated in conference play, and the division title is theirs as long as they keep winning.
Toledo, meanwhile, has everything to gain from this week's matchup. A loss to Ball State a couple of weeks ago was their first in conference play, and at 5-1 in the WAC, they need a win over Northern Illinois this week and another one over Akron on Nov. 20 to claim the West title.
Both of these teams, to some extent, control their own fate. With a win, Toledo can overtake the division lead; with a loss, its season is essentially over.
Even if Northern Illinois loses on Wednesday and wins next Friday, however, it still has a shot at the title: If Toledo loses its season finale and finishes with two conference losses, its win over the Huskies won't matter.
But both are better off trying to get through Wednesday alive. Here's what each team needs to do to win.
Toledo Keys to the Game
In last week's 34-27 loss to Ball State, the Rockets started the game weak and ended the game weak. That can't happen if they have any inclination of overtaking the Huskies.
Last week, Ball State scored 14 points before Toledo even put a single point on the board. The Rockets clearly needed some time to warm up and get into a rhythm, and once they did, they were effective: They scored 17 points in the final 17-ish minutes of the first half to head into the break deadlocked with Ball State.
The Rockets' defense held Ball State to just seven points throughout much of the second half, until there were about 10 minutes left and everything unraveled. Toledo couldn't defend its tenuous 27-24 lead and allowed 10 unanswered points to end the game.
Offense is obviously important, but defense is the name of the game—and that will be especially true against a Northern Illinois team that is capable of putting up 60-plus points in a contest. Everyone can score, but it doesn't matter if you can't stop anybody, especially in the critical waning moments of the fourth quarter. This week, the Rockets need to start strong, put the Huskies in a hole and make a solid fourth-quarter stand to hold on to their lead.
Northern Illinois Key to the Game
At points this season, Northern Illinois' defense has been stellar, and fortunately for them, their best performances have come in the latter half of the season. Exhibit A: Last week's 63-0 shutout of UMass. Not only did that performance prove to Toledo—and to the rest of the conference—that this team isn't giving up any points easily, it also served as a big confidence booster for the Huskies.
In three other instances this season, the Huskies have allowed seven points or fewer to opponents—but inconsistency has been somewhat of a problem. One week, this unit will allow seven points to Akron, the worst team in the East, and the next week, it will allow 34 to Western Michigan, the second-worst team in the West. It doesn't necessarily have to do with the level of competition; the Huskies just need to come into Wednesday's game with the same level of focus they brought to last week's win.
Pressure—namely, avoiding it—is going to play a big factor in this game as well. The Huskies haven't lost in a long time, and facing the team breathing down their necks in the division is going to be an enormous challenge. These players know that one slip-up on Wednesday could eradicate everything they've accomplished over the last nine weeks, but they need to just plain ignore that fact. They need to do exactly the same thing they've been doing for the past nine weeks: winning games.