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

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), the game was far from over. The Eagles' offense struggled, with Samson Evans managing only 52 yards on 16 carries. 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 the 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, Toledo's offensive line pushed back against the highly touted Illinois defensive front, amassing 129 rushing yards and holding possession for over 17 minutes, securing an unusual 12-7 halftime lead. After halftime, the Rockets surged forward, with Dequan Finn orchestrating the offense and extending their lead to 19-7. However, what followed would spell disaster. After stopping Illinois on their first possession of the third quarter, Toledo threw a game-altering pick-six, allowing the Illini to stay in the game. A late third-quarter touchdown put Illinois back in the lead for the first time since halftime. Illinois seemed poised to seal the victory early in the fourth quarter with another touchdown, but to Toledo's credit, they fought back with a field goal, multiple defensive stops, and the game-winning score with 2:59 remaining. The Rockets' defense deserves more credit than they're receiving, especially against a mid-tier offense. They disrupted Illinois and forced them to earn every bit of their hard-fought victory. While there are no moral victories in football, the Rockets earned immense respect 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, but it feels like we've only scratched the surface. There are plenty of questions to be answered, not just for these two teams but for the entire MAC. As we inch closer to conference play, some of those questions will be resolved. Everything remains possible for these MAC schools, and we'll see you next Saturday from Buffalo as they host Fordham!

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