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Around the MAC by Bob DiCesare: Toledo, Ball State look to dethrone N. Illinois

The distinction of the team best positioned to dethrone Northern Illinois will be determined on Saturday when Ball State hosts Toledo in a showdown between two of the Mid-American Conference West’s top contenders.

Ball State (3-1 overall) opened MAC play Saturday with a resounding 51-20 victory over Eastern Michigan, while Toledo (2-2) used a late surge to put away Central Michigan, 38-17. Senior back and Doak Walker candidate David Fluellen (Lockport) ran for 197 yards and two touchdowns for the Rockets and has topped 100 yards in nine of the last 11 regular-season games. He’s been ranked as high as 12th among running backs on the NFL Draft prognostication Web sites.

But it’s Ball State’s ascent that intrigues. Pete Lembo was brought in as coach following a 4-8 2010 season and has gone 18-11 overall and 9-2 in the last 11 (including last season’s bowl loss to Central Florida). The Cardinals hardly seemed positioned for such a drastic climb when they needed a last-minute touchdown to defeat UB, 28-25, in Lembo’s third game as coach.

“We’ve been fortunate the last two-plus years here to probably move along faster than a lot of people thought we would, maybe even faster than we thought we would,” Lembo said on Monday’s MAC coaches teleconference.

The Cardinals have scored 40 or more points in three of four starts, the exception being a 34-27 loss at North Texas in which they turned it over five times.

“You have to remember that this is still a group of kids that has to learn to handle winning as well as losing,” Lembo said. “The bulk of our team are second-year players, first-year players, third-year players. We’re fortunate that we don’t have many fourth- and fifth-year guys but those are the guys that remember when things weren’t very good around here. They remember how hard it was it was just to win a game, and still how hard it is to win a game. Sometimes it takes a loss like North Texas where we turned the ball over and didn’t have a great second half to refocus your team.”

The showdown with Toledo will determine who has the best shot at toppling defending champion NIU. Ball State plays at NIU on Nov. 13, and the Huskies will visit Toledo the following week. Ball State is the only team in the country that has opened all four of its starts with touchdown drives.

Dried ink

The extension given UB coach Jeff Quinn last November is finally in contract form. Many of the terms remain the same, including the base salary ($250,000) and compensation for media obligations ($75,000). A wide array of incentives typical of such contracts include a $5,000 bonus for a six-win (bowl-eligible) season with an additional $2,500 for each victory beyond six. A MAC East title would be worth $15,000 and an overall conference championship carries a bonus of $25,000. The contract runs through Jan. 2, 2018.

If Quinn leaves to take another coaching job before contract expiration he would have to reimburse UB an amount equal to his base salary. If UB were to terminate the deal before expiration Quinn would receive a buyout of $250,000 and additional compensation in the first year of the deal, $250,000 after the second year, $175,000 in the third year and $100,000 in the fourth year. If Quinn were dismissed and took another job, UB’s obligation decreases, with the university paying the difference between his new earnings and the contractual settlement figure.

Right on

Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey raised some eyebrows when he said Eastern Illinois would represent the Huskies’ toughest opponent to date. It seemed like a hyperbole at work considering NIU opened the season against Iowa of the Big Ten.

But Carey was on target. EIU opened a 20-0 lead before NIU rallied for a 43-39 victory behind the offensive machine that is quarterback Jordan Lynch. EIU quarterback Jimmy Garappolo, who could make a Joe Flacco-like rise up the draft board, was 34 of 49 for 450 yards and six touchdowns.

“I said it last week: that was the best team we played to date, and it proved itself,” Carey said. “You play Garappolo you’re going to give up a lot of passing yards. That guy is good.”

The victory over the No. 8 team in the FCS rankings actually cost NIU in the AP poll, with its point total dropping from 24 to nine, while Northwestern advanced a spot, from 18th to 17th, for beating unranked Maine. Go figure.

Top players

Here are the MAC divisional players of the week:

East: Offensive: Matt Johnson, QB, Bowling Green, 19-22-244-2 in 48-7 rout of FCS Murray State. Defensive: Dayonne Nunley, DB, Miami, 10 tackles, three breakups and an INT in a 14-0 loss to Cincinnati. Special Teams: Zac Murphy, punter, Miami: Averaged 52.4 yards on eight punts, including a school-record 84-yarder.

West: Offensive: Jordan Lynch, QB, Northern Illinois, 21-30-235-1 and 23 carries for 189 yards in the victory over Eastern Illinois. Defensive: Junor Sylvestre, LB, Toledo, 12 tackles, two fumble recoveries and a sack vs. EMU. Special Teams: Bernard Reedy, returner, Toledo, helped break game open with a 50-yard fourth quarter kick return.

Short bursts

Western Michigan’s first-year coach P.J. Fleck on the difference between his Broncos and this week’s opponent, Kent State:

“Where they get going and stall we don’t really get going to stall.” Fleck said WMU has lost eight starters this season and lacks the depth and big-play personnel to compensate. WMU was trampled by Iowa, 59-3, Saturday.

UB plays at WMU on Oct. 12. . . . Ohio University’s 38-0 conquest of FCS Austin Peay was its first shutout since 2004. … Eastern Michigan has the luxury of a bye leading up to its Oct. 5 game at UB.