Northern Illinois took an unusual path to its straight appearance in the Mid-American Conference championship game. After losing earlier this week, the Huskies backed into the title game when Western Michigan defeated Toledo 35-30 on Friday. The Huskies (8-4, 6-2) will play Bowling Green in the MAC title game at 7 p.m. on Dec. 4 at Ford Field in Detroit. The two teams are meeting for the third straight year.
The Huskies needed some help from Western Michigan after losing to Ohio on Tuesday. This season, the Huskies have lost two quarterbacks and endured some injuries on defense, but are seeking their second straight MAC title in a row. NIU, Western Michigan, Toledo and Central Michigan finished in a four-way tie with a 6-2 record, but the Huskies defeated Toledo and Western Michigan.
"It's such an accomplishment, not just because it's the sixth year in a row, but because everything we've went through this year," said Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey. "Just to get back and play for another MAC Championship, I'm so happy for our seniors."
The Huskies are only the second time in conference history to be making a sixth straight trip to the conference championship game, joining Marshall (1997-2002). The Falcons (9-3, 7-1) were the only team in the conference to finish with one league loss, led by quarterback Matt Johnson, who leads the nation in passing yards with 4,465 yards and passing touchdowns with 41. Johnson did not play in last season's conference title game because of an injury, but guided the Falcons to a win over the Huskies in the 2013 title game.
"We played against them two years ago and he's really good," Carey said. "He seems like he somehow has more confidence now than he did then."
The Huskies enter the title game averaging 34.6 points per game and allowing 24.8 points. The Huskies will try and rely on their running game due to their injuries at quarterback to slow down Bowling Green's prolific offense. Joel Bouagnon leads the team with 1,212 yards and 18 touchdowns, while Jordan Huff has rushed for 617 yards.
Meanwhile, the Falcons are averaging 44.2 points and giving up 27.8 points this season, averaging 566 yards per game. Both teams are coming into the title game with question marks, with the Huskies losing to the Bobcats and the Falcons losing to Toledo on Nov. 17, but bouncing back with a 48-10 triumph over Ball State.
"I thought this was a great tribute to our seniors to go out and win this game," Bowling Green coach Dino Babers said. "To finish the [regular] season with a win, to rebound from that loss last week and to have momentum going into the championship game was big."
Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck earned an assist for his former school by helping the Huskies land a spot in Detroit. Fleck, though, rather talk about his improving team. The Broncos posted a 7-5 record this season after a slow start. The Broncos earned a share of the West Division title for the first time since 2000.
"It's like being a proud dad," Fleck said. "They're on their bicycle and they have training wheels. It's the time you push them and they didn't know you took them off and they're still riding it, but they look down and there's no training wheels on it. That's the type of feeling I have as a parent. Words can't describe it."
AKRON (7-5, 5-3)
Game: Akron 20, Kent State 0. Akron quarterback Thomas Woodson passed for 140 yards and a touchdown and Conor Hundley rushed for 98 yards and a touchdown to extend Akron's winning streak to four games.
The Zips notched their first shutout since 1992, holding Kent State to just 10 yards rushing.
"I can't say how proud I am of these Akron players, especially fifth-year players like Cody Grice," Akron coach Terry Bowden said. "With what they've done as a football team, it's rewarding of a year I've ever had, and I've some pretty good years. Seven regular-season wins is great, to even lock in a bowl game, I'm very proud. They will be the team recognized as the team that got this program back."
Takeaway: Terry Bowden has lifted the program back to respectability with its fourth straight win and scheduled for the program's first bowl game in 10 years. The Zips played hard on defense and put together just enough offense to overwhelm some weak teams in the East Division.
Next: Bowl game.
BALL STATE (3-9, 2-6)
Game: Bowling Green 48, Ball State 10. Ball State finished with 264 yards of total offense while Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson passed for 236 yards and two touchdowns.
The Cardinals were led by Riley Neal's 153 yards passing and a touchdown, but he threw three interceptions. James Gilbert tallied a team-high 66 yards rushing.
Takeaway: Early in the season, Ball State coach Pete Lembo was considered a hot coaching candidate for a Power 5 Conference, but the Cardinals lost their final three games due to a poor defense and young offense. The Cardinals nearly knocked off then-No. 17 Northwestern early in the season, but lost five games in a row and eight of their last nine.
Next: Season over.
BOWLING GREEN (9-3, 7-1)
Game: Bowling Green 48, Ball State 10. Bowling Green senior quarterback Matt Johnson passed for 236 yards and two touchdowns and Fred Coppet ran for 109 yards and a touchdown to lead the Falcons to their ninth win of the season.
Matthew Domer had three carries for 105 yards and a touchdown and Travis Greene added 17 carries for 97 yards and two touchdowns, while Gehrig Dieter added 11 receptions for 81 yards and a touchdown.
Takeaway: Bowling Green rebounded from a tough loss to local rival Toledo by crushing the Cardinals. The Falcons needed a big win to build some momentum for the MAC Championship game against Northern Illinois.
Next: at Northern Illinois, Dec. 4 at the MAC Championship game in Detroit.
BUFFALO (5-7, 3-5)
Game: UMass 31, Buffalo 26. Buffalo senior quarterback Joe Licata passed for 287 yards and a touchdown and Anthone Taylor rushed for 85 yards and a touchdown, but UMass scored 28 points in the first half and held on for the victory. Licata passed for two interceptions and committed five penalties.
Takeaway: A month ago, the Bulls were seemingly headed toward a bowl game, but after losing three straight games, Buffalo will be spending the holidays at home. The Bulls' defense allowed 41, 42 and 31 points in their three-game losing streak.
Next: Season over
CENTRAL MICHIGAN (7-5, 6-2)
Game: Central Michigan 35, Eastern Michigan 28. Central Michigan running back Romello Ross scored four touchdowns to fuel the Chippewas to a win over the Eagles. Ross finished with seven carries for 34 yards.
Ross scored on TD runs of 5, 63, 3 and 17 yards to push the Chippewas into a four-way tie for the MAC West Division title with Northern Illinois, Toledo and Western Michigan.
Takeaway: The Chippewas finished the regular season on a high note. The Chippewas' will look back on the 2015 season as a missed opportunity after numerous close losses, especially in the non-conference season, stopped the team from winning more games and potentially an West Division title.
Next: Bowl game.
EASTERN MICHIGAN (1-11, 0-8)
Game: Central Michigan 35, Eastern Michigan 28. Darius Jackson rushed for 92 yards and a touchdown and Brogan Roback added 206 yards passing and two touchdowns in the loss.
Takeaway: The EMU program took a step back this season. Most observers expected the Eagles to be an improved team, especially with Reginald Bell leading the way at quarterback. The Eagles had quarterback issues all season, forcing a musical chairs at the position and never could establish a consistent running game, forcing the defense to take their lumps in numerous losses.
Next: Season over.
KENT STATE (3-9, 2-6)
Game: Akron 20, Kent State 0. Kent State finished with just seven first downs and 10 yards rushing in losing to its local rivals. George Bollas passed for 102 yard and Trayion Durham led the rushing attack with a meager 10 yards on seven carries.
Takeaway: A rough season for the Golden Flashes that started with some promise. The Paul Haynes era might be in trouble after Kent State managed just 31 points in their final five conference games. The Golden Flashes failed to score a point in losses to Bowling Green, Ohio and Kent State down the stretch.
Next: Season over
MIAMI (3-9, 2-6)
Next: Season over.
NORTHERN ILLINOIS (8-4, 6-2)
Game: Ohio 26, Northern Illinois 21. Northern Illinois had a chance to wrap up the MAC West Division title by beating the Bobcats in DeKalb, but an injury to starting quarterback Ryan Graham hurt the Huskies. The backup quarterback, a redshirt freshman, left the game with an Achilles injury and did not return, forcing true freshman Tommy Fielder to finish out the game.
Takeaway: The Huskies received some help to land their sixth straight appearance in the MAC title game. Western Michigan defeated Toledo to force a four-way tie for the West title, but the Huskies won the division by virtue of beating Western Michigan and Toledo. Northern Illinois might be forced to play the MAC title game with true freshman quarterback Tommy Fielder because of injuries to their top three quarterbacks.
Next: vs. Bowling Green, Dec. 4 at Ford Field in Detroit.
OHIO (8-4, 5-3)
Game: Ohio 26, Northern Illinois 21. A.J. Ouellette rushed for 140 yards to lead Ohio to an upset win at Northern Illinois. Ouellette handled all the carries for the Bobcats and junior quarterback Greg Windham passed for 76 yards and added 43 rushing yards, while wide receiver Jordan Reid had a game-high 66 receiving yards and caught a touchdown pass.
Takeaway: The Bobcats closed out the season in impressive fashion by ending NIU's 22-game winning streak in games played in November. The Bobcats will head into the bowl season as one of the hottest teams in the conference with a three-game winning streak, including wins over Kent State and Ball State.
Next: Bowl game.
TOLEDO (9-2, 6-2)
Game: Western Michigan 35, No. 24 Toledo 30. Toledo running back Kareem Hunt ran for 139 yards and a touchdown and quarterback Phillip Ely passed for 280 yards and two touchdowns, but Western Michigan wide receiver Corey Davis caught six passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns to spark the Broncos to a road win.
The Broncos' win caused a four-way tie for the West title with Northern Illinois, Toledo and Central Michigan.
Takeaway: The Rockets lost two key games late in the season at home to lose their grip on a MAC West title and twice lose a national ranking. The Rockets, who also suffered a home loss to Northern Illinois, managed 201 yards rushing and 280 passing, but had trouble converting in the red zone. Toledo coach Matt Campbell, though, might have coached his last game for the Rockets. Campbell was rumored to be the frontrunner for the Iowa State job.
Next: Bowl game.
UMASS (3-9, 2-6)
Game: UMass 31, Buffalo 26. UMass freshman running back Marquis Young carried the ball 35 times for 240 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Minutemen to their third win of the season. With the win, UMass' 25 seniors won the program's final game as a member of the Mid-American Conference. UMass scored 28 points in the first half to spoil Buffalo's bid to become bowl eligible.
Takeaway: UMass takes some momentum into next season by beating Buffalo on the road. The Minutemen will play an independent schedule next season that will feature three games against teams from the SEC.
Next: Season over.
WESTERN MICHIGAN (7-5, 6-2)
Game: Western Michigan 35, No. 24 Toledo 30. Western Michigan quarterback Zach Terrell threw for 247 yards and two touchdowns and Corey Davis caught six passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns to keep the Rockets from winning the MAC West title and advancing to the MAC championship game.
Davis caught a 30-yard touchdown pass late in the second quarter to give the Broncos a 25-21 lead that they would not relinquish. The Rockets had 201 yards rushing and 280 passing, but were 1-for-3 on fourth down conversions and scored just three times on five trips in the red zone.
Takeaway: This might be the biggest win in the P.J. Fleck era. The Broncos earned their second straight bowl game appearance, and knocked off a ranked team. The Broncos needed a signature win, and finished in a four-way tie for first place in the West. Whether Fleck is around for the bowl game is another question, with most media observers expecting Fleck to bolt for a job in a BCS conference.