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Mid-major Report: Northern Illinois, Ball State set to square off in major MAC clash

Jordan LynchJordan Lynch (6) has passed for 1,871 yards and rushed for 1,150 yards during his standout 2013. (Jeff Haynes/AP)

Last Thursday helped shape the national title picture, as Baylor topped Oklahoma 41-12 to remain undefeated, while Oregon saw its championship hopes dashed in a 26-20 loss to Stanford. Now, another midweek game could impact the larger BCS landscape. A year after making an unlikely Orange Bowl run, Northern Illinois is 9-0 and ranked No. 15 in BCS standings. On Wednesday, it'll host Ball State, which is riding a seven-game winning streak of its own.

The Huskies can't focus on jockeying for bowl position, not with a team as talented as the Cardinals set to visit DeKalb. If not for a turnover-plagued 34-27 loss to North Texas on Sept. 14, Ball State (9-1, 6-0) could be the non-AQ darling of the year, perhaps even more so than Fresno State and NIU. The Cardinals are averaging 39.9 points per game, beat Virginia 48-27 on Oct. 5 and have one of the best pass-and-catch combinations in the country with quarterback Keith Wenning and wide receiver Willie Snead.

Wenning, a senior, is averaging 8.5 yards per attempt. He has a 27-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Coach Pete Lembo trusts him in just about every conceivable situation, and Snead provides one heck of a safety valve. The junior wideout from Belle Glade, Fla., has 74 catches for 1,175 yards and 12 touchdowns. He has seven 100-plus-yard efforts this year and has yet to finish a game with fewer than five receptions.

“Their offense -- you’re not going to stop it,” NIU coach Rod Carey said during the MAC teleconference on Monday. “You hope to slow it down. You hope to limit explosive plays, but they have too many weapons.”

STAPLES: Northern Illinois sits at No. 21 in latest college football Power Rankings

Ball State has been on the upswing since Lembo took over in 2011. The former Lehigh and Elon coach led the Cardinals to a 6-6 record in his debut campaign after the team won a combined six games in the previous two seasons under Stan Parrish. Last year, the Cardinals went 9-4 and made an appearance in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl.

"When we got here before the 2011 season we hoped to build a program that would be able to compete and show some consistency and position itself to be in meaningful games this time of year," Lembo said during his portion of the MAC teleconference. "I'm proud of how our kids have bought in and how hard they've worked. Our staff has done a tremendous job to get our program to this point. Hopefully we'll go out there to DeKalb and put our best foot forward on Wednesday night."

Ball State fans have certainly noticed the change in momentum, and they're fully on board. One went so far as to hold up a "We Want Bama" sign during the Cardinals' 44-24 win over Central Michigan last Wednesday. While that type of confidence is inspiring, when Ball State gets Northern Illinois this week, that will likely provide enough of a challenge.

For NIU, this year's script has been fairly similar to 2012's. The Huskies avenged last September's one-point loss to Iowa, and quarterback Jordan Lynch has shouldered the majority of the offensive load. Lynch finished seventh in Heisman Trophy voting last winter, and he has followed it up with another tour-de-force performance: He has passed for 1,871 yards, rushed for 1,150 yards and scored 32 total touchdowns (including a receiving score against Eastern Michigan).

"He's probably underrated as a passer," Lembo said. "You get so geared up to stop the run game, the quarterback-run game and all the misdirection that they have some good opportunities to throw it on the perimeter, whether it be screens or downfield throws. I think number one that he doesn't get as much credit as he deserves for what he does in the passing game, and number two, their staff is very wise in what the defense is giving them. When people are too overzealous with the run game and overloading the box, you get some good matchups on the outside. Obviously, they've got some very good skill on the outside."

While Lynch's numbers have taken a slight dip from last year, the team has found a hidden gem in tailback Cameron Stingily. The former linebacker delivered a 266-yard performance in a 38-24 win over Kent State on Oct. 5, and he has 784 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on the season. His success on the ground is keeping opponents from completely keying in on Lynch, which has led to more offensive balance for the unbeaten Huskies.

This matchup will likely ultimately decide the MAC West, and it's a worthy midweek showcase for two of the league's premier programs. Northern Illinois (22) and Ball State (11) have combined to win 33 consecutive conference games (including two conference title games). One of those streaks will be snapped on Wednesday.

Three up

• Buffalo running back Branden Oliver: With 249 rushing yards and two touchdowns in last week's 30-3 win over Ohio, Oliver moved past the 1,000-yard mark for the second time in three seasons. The Bulls are riding a seven-game winning streak entering their game against Toledo (6-3, 4-1) on Tuesday.

• North Texas: After a 41-7 win over UTEP, the Mean Green (7-3, 5-1) have now won five in a row and sit atop the C-USA West. North Texas has a bye week before finishing the season against UTSA and Tulsa.

• Colorado State running back Kapri BibbsThe sophomore rushed for 312 yards, a Colorado State single-game record, and four touchdowns to help the Rams rout Nevada and move to 5-5 on the year. Bibbs now leads the nation with 19 rushing touchdowns.

Three down

• Idaho: The Vandals probably just want to hit fast-forward on the remainder of this season. After falling to Old Dominion 59-38 to give the Monarchs their first-ever FBS win, Idaho is now 1-9 (with its lone win coming against one-win Temple). It has a bye week traveling to No. 2 Florida State.

Tulane: Entering November, the Green Wave had been a pleasant surprise. They started 6-2, including a wild 36-33 overtime win over East Carolina, to become bowl eligible. But Tulane has come back down to earth, dropping two straight after Saturday's 10-7 loss to UTSA. A bye week and a game against UTEP (1-8, 0-5) offer a chance to stop the bleeding.

Air Force: The Falcons' win over Army on Nov. 2 obviously meant more than a typical game, but outside of that, this team has been a mess. They took their eighth loss in the last nine games in a 45-37 defeat to New Mexico on Saturday. With UNLV and Colorado State left on the schedule, another victory might be hard to come by. Air Force hasn't won four games or fewer in a season since 2006.
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