There are a lot of ways to define MACtion. Back when I was in college, one of the tone-setters for this conference was the Northern Illinois vs. Toledo rivalry. It’s a rivalry, but only by proxy of a lot of things always happening at once when these two would meet up after NIU re-joined the MAC. From 1997-2009, Toledo won 11 of 13 matchups and went on to win two MAC championships under Tom Amstutz (2001, 2004).
What made this series a rivalry?
- The games mattered.
- The teams were good.
- The games were played like they were rivals.
- Stars (in their own right) really were born out of this series.
Joe Novak took his losses (1-10 in series) and retired after the 2007 season, but not before the Huskies saw two bowl games over the last four years. An 0-11 season in 1997 was how NIU fared in its first time back as an FBS team, then things got painful. In 2002, 2004 and 2005, NIU had conference records of 7-1, 7-1, and 6-2 respectively. None of which were good enough to win the MAC West division outright. In 2002, NIU lost 33-30 at home to the Rockets in the final game of the year and the Rockets played Marshall in the MAC Championship game. In 2004, NIU was unable to match Toledo RB’s Scooter McDougle’s big day (133 yards on 28 carries) as NIU RB Garrett Wolfe was sidelined with “an unspecified non-football related injury”, NIU lost 31-17 at home.
In 2005, NIU had its first win in the series as a born-again MAC program. This time, Wolfe was on the field and torched UT: 177 yards and two touchdowns to lead NIU to a 35-17 victory. With the unusual win, the MAC West saw an usual three-way tie for its division race. After the win, NIU, Toledo, and Western Michigan all shared 5-2 MAC records. The next week, Toledo won the double-overtime thriller in Bowling Green (44-41) as NIU steamrolled WMU 42-7 at home after a 5-TD day out of Wolfe. Since NIU’s 6-2 was better than Toledo’s 6-2, the Huskies finally won the MAC West division in the year it just so happen to finally beat one of its biggest problems on the schedule.
(NIU proceeded to lose to Akron in the 2005 MAC Championship game, 31-30.)
Then NIU went on a run. Once 2010 hit, then NIU started to reach a historical peak in its history. QB Chandler Harnish was a big deal, and was surrounded by a ton of talent with RB Chad Spann and a nasty defense. The Jordan Lynch years were great of course, but don’t forget how much Drew Hare was able to carry the torch after him too. When NIU beat Toledo, NIU won the division. And from 2010-2015, that was absolutely true. NIU went on a six-year run of beating Toledo and reaching the MAC championship.
So when NIU and Toledo are both doing great, the MAC’s doing pretty great too. When we’re talking about leagues that are “Haves” and “Have Nots”, the MAC’s always going to be in the “Have Not” category. There are lot of ways the MAC tries to gain popularity and it’s not always in the prettiest ways.
Weeknight football isn’t the best lifestyle for any conference in the top level of competition. It’s not easy for anybody to plan for/around, and it always feels more random than consistent. NIU beating Georgia Tech is a big deal, and so is EMU beating Rutgers. Waving a customized Jolly Roger is one way to make games matter when we play some out-of-conference games, but no fun branding matters more than the important football games being played really hard and really well.
Saturday’s rendition was beautiful. It’s early October and the Huskies proving all of us with negative preseason thoughts, opinions, or forecasts about the team’s outlook dead wrong. The Huskies, picked last in the West, beat Toledo, generally picked in the top-half of the West, 22-20 in a game that saw six lead changes and five field goals out of NIU K Daniel Richardson. This game wasn’t pretty, the setup wasn’t perfect, but it was absolutely beautiful.
And now the MAC West is maybe more wide-open than I’ve ever seen it being at this point in any season since I’ve been writing about the league.
Or maybe this is all of a sudden NIU’s race to lose. The Huskies are, after all, the only team in the West with a MAC record of 2-0. Everybody else is 1-1.
No matter how this race settles over the next month and a half, I’m pretty sure NIU-Toledo helped decide how this thing will turn out.