BY SHAEMUS KREIDER | Ball State Sports Link
Over the last two seasons, Ball State has seen its stock rise in the Mid-American Conference.
Once a bottom feeder, Mike Neu has built a team with lots of talent, from the secondary through the backfield. This year’s Cardinals team has yet to make it complete, 1-1 after two 38-31 finishes.
The final Wednesday tilt of the season has a possibility to eliminate that inconsistency.
This week’s opponent, Northern Illinois, was projected to finish last in the MAC West this year by the media and the coaches. NIU is in the middle of a rebuild, and has shown how far it has to go through two weeks.
The rushing attack has been non-existent, and the defense has given up almost 45 points per game.
This is the week where Ball State can run away with a game, but with MAC football, you never know. Here are four keys to a Cardinal and White win.
Key 1: Hunt for the records with Caleb Huntley.
The MAC’s leading rusher put the team on his back last Wednesday against Eastern Michigan. 59 of Huntley’s career-best 204 yards on the ground came in the final drive, with the game tied at 31.
Huntley is averaging six yards per carry this year and it’s tough to see him being slowed by an inexperienced NIU defense.
Ball State quarterback Drew Plitt did not read Eastern Michigan’s coverages well last week, thus the keys of the offense were turned over to the senior running back.
Huntley is just seven yards away from James Gilbert, who is seventh in Ball State history for career rushing yards with 2,806. Expect an early and often dose of Huntley, on a cold night in Scheumann Stadium.
Key 2: Don’t be discouraged by a slow start.
Last Wednesday’s Central Michigan vs. Northern Illinois game was a first-half snoozer. The only scores in the half were a 58-yard Chippewas touchdown, and a snap over the head of Huskie punter Matt Ference for a safety.
Aside from an early exploration into CMU territory (ended by a failed fourth-down conversion), NIU punted on seven possessions in the first half.
After the early drive, the Huskie offense did not get across midfield until the score was 33-0 in the fourth quarter.
NIU’s young defense was not capable of shutting down last year’s MAC West champs over a full game. They were simply on the field too long with an offense that was awful at best.
If the Cardinals are in a similar game at the half, they need to make the NIU defense tired, then run wild past tired Huskies. The Huskies have given up 59 points in four second half quarters this year.
Key 3: Control the clock.
Unlike most MAC opponents, Thomas Hammock’s offense is slow and methodical. On the two scoring drives late in the Central Michigan contest, the Huskies chewed up 11:00 of the clock.
A long NIU drive will keep the ball away from your playmakers on offense, and tire a defensive unit.
If you’re Ball State, you need the ball on your side. Defense has not been the strength of the Cardinals in previous years, and it is not a strength again this year.
Given the opportunities, Caleb Huntley will run wild, but if NIU can control the ball for long periods of time, this game could get flipped on its head.
Key 4: Stop the run.
Eastern Michigan was the worst rushing team in the MAC West in 2019, and they lost their top-two rushers, QB Mike Glass III, and RB Shaq Vann. Despite those negative factors, the Eagles were able to put up 227 yards on the ground.
Eastern quarterback Preston Hutchinson, with negative rushing yards in his career, ran for 104 yards, leading the way for the rushing attack. This is clearly something needing to be fixed for Tyler Stockton’s defense.
NIU doesn’t have a true starting running back, and Ross Bowers is another pocket passer. This is a good setup for the Cardinals, but they have to execute proper run defense in order to stagnate the Huskies attack, like Central Michigan did one week ago.