It's the game we've all been waiting for. Emotions will be high when the Cardinals and Huskies kick off Wednesday at 8 PM ET at Huskie Stadium in Dekalb. On the line for Ball State is a MAC West title and berth in the conference championship game, assured with a Cardinals victory. We're watching the final games of quarterback Keith Wenning's career, one in which he has rewritten the Ball State record books and captured national attention by putting up video game numbers on a weekly basis. The architect of that blistering aerial attack is Ball State head coach Pete Lembo.
The game against Northern Illinois is the biggest of his career, one that seems destined to move outside of Muncie, Indiana following the 2013 campaign. Ball State's success has landed Lembo atop many lists of coaches coveted by BCS AQ schools. Wenning, Lembo, and this current band of Cardinals have achieved unprecedented success at Ball State. They've won 11th straight MAC games, 15 of 16 overall, and 7 consecutive this season. Ball State is the only FBS team in the country with a quarterback who has thrown 25 touchdown passes in Wenning, a receiver who has caught 12 touchdowns in Willie Snead, and a running back who has rushed for 12 touchdowns in Jahwan Edwards.
One thing they have not accomplished however, is bringing the Bronze Stalk Trophy back to Muncie. Ball State hasn't won this rivalry matchup since 2008. The Cardinals chances of turning the tide have never been better, and NIU head coach Rod Carey knows the Huskies will have their work cut out for them against the conference's leading passing offense.
"It's going to be a big challenge for us," said Carey. "They're the best team I've seen on film right now going into a game and how they execute their game plan overall. They have a taste for winning and confidence is an amazing thing."
Consider this fair warning to the uninformed who prefer to watch their football on Saturday afternoons as opposed to Wednesday evenings. Also those who constantly question who your team played anytime an attempt to show a morsel of enthusiasm for the athletics at your mid major alma mater arises. This offense is scary. It's not just good for the MAC, it's good for all of college football.
Keith Wenning has the makeup (6'3", 220) of an NFL quarterback. Willie Snead makes stunning catches, catches that would turn heads in any conference, against any opponent. USC would trade head coaches and quarterbacks with Ball State yesterday, and who knows, maybe half of that statement is prophetic. Running backs Jahwan Edwards and Horactio Banks complement one another beautifully, and expect both of them to figure prominently in Wednesday's decision. I've no prediction as to who will win this game, but it will take a truckload of points to knock off the Cardinals. Expect Wenning to go for numbers approaching 300 yards and 4 touchdowns, and get ready for Willie Snead to turn your head a couple times.
Carey doesn't know losing in the MAC. Even though the Huskies field the country's 107th passing defense, he'll ensure his team knows what to expect when the Cardinals take the field.
"Offensively they're very aggressive," Northern Illinois defensive lineman Ken Bishop said. "We know they like to throw the ball. They come out and attack expeditiously, so we're just going to have to make sure we're prepared."
Northern Illinois is pushing even more chips to the center on the table on Wednesday. The Huskies have won a staggering 25 straight home contests, longest in the nation and slapped around two Big Ten schools this season. Add to that current conference winning streak of 22 games and the #15 ranking in latest BCS poll and NIU is clearly the MAC's Goliath. NIU still has a schedule that includes Toledo after Ball State, but suffice it to say the Huskies are looking towards a fourth consecutive appearance in the conference championship game and crashing the BCS like they did a year ago.
Also in the equation is the possibility of a Heisman trophy for quarterback Jordan Lynch. Lynch has had a year unlike any other quarterback in MAC history. Northern Illinois rattles off better than 545 yards of total offense a game. Lynch contributes 207 through the air and 127 on the ground. On October 19th against Central Michigan, Lynch rushed for a mind boggling 316 yards. He is more critical to his team's success than possibly any other player in the country. He's a dual threat, but he's got plenty of help. Cameron Stingily has emerged as a viable option rushing the ball, chipping in 98 yards a game, good for 6th in the conference. Lynch's favorite target, Tommylee Lewis, catches about seven balls a game. On October 12th, NIU narrowly knocked off Akron in DeKalb, 27-20, entirely too close for a team capable of playing in the BCS.
Since that game the Huskies have left little to the imagination, beating teams more soundly by the week. Central Michigan by 21, Eastern Michigan by 39, and dismantling Massachusetts by 44 points on November 2nd in a game not nearly as close as the score indicates. Lembo's squad is matching up with an offensive unit that rivals his own, with the added dimension of having to defend what Lynch can do on the ground.
"The basis of quarterback runs is to give you an extra player somehow," Lembo said. "What would normally be a run that you'd hand off to a tailback, when it's the quarterback himself running the ball you end up with an extra player. Either it's an extra blocker or it's somebody to pull a guy out of the (defensive box) on some kind of misdirection, because you have to cover him somehow."
With those sort of numbers Lynch can put up, as well as the depth Northern Illinois displays from a variety of positions, this game will test the limit of two suspect defenses, and may end up going to the first team that can put up fifty points.
"You have a lot of different layers (to defend)," Lembo said. "They are multi-faceted with their personnel, so they have tight ends that they can bring in, different backs, different receivers and different combinations of personnel groupings.
"They use a lot of different shifts and a lot of different motions. And then there is a lot of misdirection off of all of that. And they add the quarterback run to all of that, so that gives you another layer. So, it's not a great week to be a defensive coordinator."
Though it's certainly a great week to be a MAC fan. It's Wednesday night and it's MACtion. The biggest game in our conference in years. Conference championship, BCS, Heisman Trophy, and for a handful of players, NFL shots are on the line. Join the MAC Open Thread and discuss this blockbuster. It's definitely appointment television.
"This is where you want to be," Lembo said.
They may need a new scoreboard on Thursday in DeKalb.