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On the first weekend of September, #MACtion gave to me…

Updated: May 29

Champaign, Ill - The prediction shows are behind us, and the vexing "color swap" posts have disappeared. Football has returned, and the land resonates with cheers. All twelve MAC schools suited up once more, and it was, to put it mildly, a mixed bag. NIU kicked off the day with the first MAC win against a "Power Five" team, Ohio and WMU edged out their FCS opponents with some nail-biting moments, Akron suffered a heartbreaking loss on the road against Temple, BGSU made it close but couldn't overcome five INTs, CMU, Ball State, and Buffalo offered glimpses of excitement before succumbing, Kent State lived up to expectations, while Miami faltered in Florida during the Confusion Bowl. It was indeed a diverse weekend, featuring moments of brilliance, greatness, and head-scratching decisions.

This week, we hit the road to witness the first two games of 2023 live: Howard at Eastern Michigan and Toledo at Illinois, two nights, two different MAC teams, a span of 351 miles, and two distinct outcomes.

EMU receivers warm up before their game against Howard. EMU won 33-23 - The CSC Podcast File Photo

On Friday night, Eastern Michigan surged ahead early, establishing a commanding 16-0 lead in the first quarter. Thanks to a combination of solid defense and special teams prowess, they stretched that lead to 30-9 by halftime. While Eastern secured the lead with a first-quarter safety and two crucial special teams touchdowns (kick returns from Jaylon Jackson and Hamze El-Zayat), the game was far from over. The Eagles' offense struggled, with Samson Evans managing only 52 yards on 16 carries, while Austin Smith completed just 19 passes for 175 yards and a score with a pick. The defense seemed off balance during most of the second half, and the offense went a daunting 38 game minutes without scoring (excluding special teams points). A late fourth-quarter field goal finally broke that dry spell, but it wasn't an overwhelmingly impressive start to the Eagles' season. The Bison dominated in plays and yards (63-389 to 42-200), time of possession, and displayed a more balanced offensive efficiency. The second half differed significantly from the first, with Howard's formidable defense containing Eastern Michigan. Coach Creighton acknowledged Howard's preparedness and praised his players for making smart fourth-quarter adjustments, ultimately securing the win. While Eastern Michigan stands at 1-0, there are undoubtedly questions to address before conference play commences. Next week, the Eagles face a tough test against Minnesota, a team previously toppled by BGSU in 2021.

Toledo capped off the night with a thriller in Champaign, taking on the Fighting Illini of Illinois. After Illinois marched down the field on their opening drive, scoring a touchdown for a 7-0 lead, the rest of the half belonged to Toledo. Relying heavily on their ground game (thanks to rushing efforts by Peny Boone and Dequan Finn), Toledo's offensive line pushed back against the highly touted Illinois defensive front, amassing 129 rushing yards and holding possession for over 17 minutes all while securing an unusual 12-7 halftime lead. After halftime, the Rockets picked up where they left off, with Dequan Finn directing the offense with ease extending the lead with a pass to Peny Boone to make it 19-7. After stopping Illinois on their first possession of the third quarter, Toledo threw a game-altering pick-six to Miles Scott, as Illinois turned that into the momentum shift they needed. After back to back defensive stops, it was a late third-quarter touchdown (a Luke Altmeyer to Pat Bryant special) to put Illinois back in the lead. Illinois seemed poised to seal the victory early in the fourth quarter with another touchdown, but the Rockets refused to buckle as they fought back with a Luke Pawlak field goal, multiple defensive stops including key pass break ups by Chris McDonald and future NFL Draft hopeful Quinyon Mitchell, and the potential game-winning score with 2:59 remaining. The Rockets' defense deserves more credit than they're receiving, especially against a mid-tier Big Ten offense, aiding the offense to multiple road comebacks against a stout preseason Big Ten defense. They disrupted Illinois and forced them to earn every bit of their hard-fought victory, and the wild fourth and 33 from Luke Altmeyer to Casey Washington to set up the game winning field goal. While there are no moral victories in football, the Rockets earned immense respect (and some applause) from Illinois' coaches, players, and fans. The Rockets will return to the Glass Bowl, where they will welcome FCS Texas Southern.

This weekend offered numerous lessons for each MAC team, but it feels like we've only scratched the surface to what could be a special season for at least a handful of them. There are plenty of questions to be answered, not just for these two teams but for the entire league. As we inch closer to conference play, some of those questions will be resolved. Everything remains possible for these MAC schools. I will se you next Saturday from Buffalo as they host Fordham!



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