Birdwatching Week 5: VS Northern Illinois

By Dane Massey | Sports Link

MUNCIE Ind — The Battle for the Bronze Stalk trophy comes to Muncie, IN. this week, as the Cardinals get set for a crucial matchup against big-time rival Northern Illinois (1-3) for their second conference game of the season.

While both have come off disappointing starts, the Huskies have had a more challenging schedule than the Cardinals thus far. Northern Illinois started off its season with a home win against Eastern Illinois. However, from there, the Huskies played two of its next three against SEC opponents, Vanderbilt and No. 8 Kentucky. Despite the odds, the Huskies performed impressively, with all three losses coming by 10 points or less. Tulsa beat Northern Illinois with a last-minute touchdown to go up three and steal the game.

For Ball State, it is a different story. They have played only one team in the power five conferences. That came in week one against Tennessee in Knoxville Tenn. in which the Cardinals lost 59-10. Ever since then Ball State has played FCS opponent Murray State and the Sun Belt Conference’s own Georgia Southern. The Cardinals would shut out Murray State but would suffer a crushing defeat to Georgia Southern.

Speaking of that crushing loss to Georgia Southern the Cardinals look to not have another heartbreaking loss, especially against a bitter rival after what happened last year.

In a crucial Mid-American Conference matchup, Ball State marched down the field a kicked a go-ahead 48-yard field goal to make it 29-27 in favor of the Cardinals with 1:42 remaining. However, the Huskies had just enough time to respond and made a 32-yard field goal as time expired to regain the trophy and also end Ball State’s bid to repeat as MAC champions.

As the Cardinals get set for a crucial Mid-American Conference matchup against Northern Illinois for the Bronze Stalk trophy, here are a few things to keep an eye on for the matchup.

It’s Not Just For Bragging Rights:

This game is not just another rivalry game for Ball State. Outside of playing for the right to claim the Bronze Stalk trophy, there is much more at stake for this matchup.

Both teams currently sit with a 1-3 record coming into this matchup, with Ball State having a 0-1 record in the Mid-American Conference standings. Ball State dropped its first conference matchup of the season against Western Michigan in heartbreaking fashion as the Cardinals gave up a touchdown halfway through the fourth quarter to lose the game 37-30.

Northern Illinois is coming to Muncie to play their first conference game of the season with a statistical advantage on their side. Since 2000, Ball State has only beaten the Huskies five times with the most recent victory coming in 2020. However, the last four matchups have been decided by 10 points or less which means that this game, is more than likely going to be a war. Since the two teams had their first matchup in 1941, 19 games have been decided by one score.Β 

Now, what makes the stakes so high for this particular matchup?

Believe it or not, this is a must-win game for both sides. For Ball State, a victory would put them back into the Mid-American Conference championship contention as they would sit at 1-1. A defeat would put them into a deeper hole and would give them their fourth loss in five games. Holding the Bronze Stalk trophy for the third time in four years would be a major morale boost for Ball State as their schedule only gets tougher from here.

For Northern Illinois, a second consecutive win against Ball State would make it 12 wins since the founding of the Bronze Stalk trophy in 2008, with the Huskies securing back-to-back wins for the first time since 2017 and 2018. If the Cardinals pull out a victory against the Huskies, then the showings against No. 8 Kentucky and Vanderbilt will be for nothing and will show that Northern Illinois came up short once again and will put a huge question mark on their season.

“It’s going to be a great game with two football teams that are hungry,” Head Coach Mike Neu said. “It’s all going to come down to the week of preparation and going out and executing on Saturday.”

Being Patient on Both Sides:

Two of the biggest questions coming into this game were how Ball State’s defense would hold up against a wounded Northern Illinois offense without its firepower in quarterback Rocky Lombardi, and how the offense would handle the pressure against a very talented Huskie defense. One that is second in the Mid-Americans Conference in sacks with 10 (Bowling Green leads the MAC with 14 sacks).

Northern Illinois fifth-year starting quarterback went down with an undisclosed leg injury in week two against Vanderbilt while having a 14-point lead over the Commodores. The Huskies then put freshman Ethan Hampton at QB, who kept the ship steady after coming into the game, completing 12 passes for 124 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception.

As Lombardi was listed as out the following week against No. 8 Kentucky, Hampton stepped in as the starter. The freshman finished the day throwing for 13 completions on 25 attempts for one touchdown and no interceptions, a solid performance against one of college football’s elite teams.

So will Lombardi be available against Ball State or will the Huskies have to rely on Hampton to get the job done against the Cardinals? That answer will remain to be seen as Lombardi is listed as questionable for Saturday’s matchup, and even if he does play it will certainly be a question as to how much he can sustain.

As for Ball State’s offense, they face the test of going up arguably one of the best defenses in the Mid-American Conference. Ball State is currently ranked as one of the conference’s best offenses behind Central Michigan, as junior quarterback John Paddock is having a tremendous season thus far being listed as one of the best quarterbacks in the conference behind Ohio’s Kurtis Rourke. Meanwhile, sophomore runningback Carson Steele continues to shine as he is the lead rusher in the Mid-American Conference will over 400 yards through four games and averaging over 100 yards a game.

The Cardinals return home Saturday, Oct. 1, for a Mid-American Conference matchup vs. Northern Illinois. Kickoff is set for 2:00 p.m. ET at Scheumann Stadium and will be streaming live on ESPN+. Follow @bsusportslink for more updates.

Author: Dane Massey