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2016 Week 5 Preview: Ball State vs. Northern Illinois

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Can the Cardinals bring the Bronze Stalk back to Muncie?

NCAA Football: Ball State at Texas A&M Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

It’s happening a little earlier than usual, and these are two programs headed in drastically different directions. But the cozy, comfortable blanket of hate feels as good as it ever has. It’s Bronze Stalk Week in Muncie.

The Ball State Cardinals (3-1) will host the Northern Illinois Huskies (0-4) in the MAC West’s annual installment of the Battle for the Bronze Stalk Saturday afternoon. This rivalry has been overwhelmingly one-sided since its inception.

Ball State claimed the trophy first, blowing out the Huskies 45-14 in 2008. Since then, the Bronze Stalk has taken up residency in DeKalb. Northern Illinois has run off seven straight wins, most recently a 59-41 decision last season.

Things are just a little bit different in 2016, though, and it caught everyone off guard. To say that NIU has stumbled out of the gate would be putting it lightly.

The Huskies are arguably the most disappointing team in college football this season. Back to back road losses to Wyoming and South Florida opened the season. On September 17th, NIU hung with the San Diego State until the fourth quarter before falling at home. Last week the wheels officially came off. Northern Illinois suffered a home loss to the Western Illinois Leathernecks of FCS. Take it back to last season and the Huskies have lost seven straight. That’s their worst stretch since 1998, and it’s fair to say it has put head coach Rod Carey on the hot seat.

Ball State finds itself in a very different situation. Expectations were, at best, cautiously optimistic for fans when former Cardinal quarterback and 1993 MAC Player of the Year Mike Neu took the position vacated by former head coach Pete Lembo. The Cardinals are 3-1 and a bowl game all of the sudden does not seem outside the realm of possibility.

But this is a rivalry. So we know that we can’t put too much stock into what has happened through the first four games of the season. To see Northern Illinois open the season that way, you may think they’re full steam ahead towards 0-12. Vegas has the Cards about 4 point favorites. Make that your barometer.

Key to a Cardinals victory will be stopping the Northern Illinois rush. There’s nothing positive to draw from the Huskies loss to Western Illinois, but is notable that Jordan Rush racked up 130 yards on 9 carries. This season Huff averages 6.3 yards a carry, and as a team the Huskies have averaged 228 yards on the ground since losing starting quarterback Drew Hare for the season.

Ball State yields just 97 rushing yards per game and leads the nation in sacks, so they’ll make Hare’s replacement, senior Anthony Maddie beat them with his arm. Maddie completed 11 of 16 passes for 142 yards and a touchdown in the loss to Western Illinois.

The Huskies will have to contend with a deep stable of Ball State running backs. The Cardinals have relied on the rushing attack for their early season success, and plenty of guys get plenty of touches. James Gilbert leads the group with 330 yards through 4 games. Darian Green, Teddy Williamson, and Malik Dunner could also see significant work against a Northern Illinois defense that gives up 236 rushing yards a game.

Ball State quarterback Riley Neal has improved with each game this season. Last Saturday in Boca Raton he led a 10-play, 70-yard drive, rushing for a game-winning touchdown with under 2 minutes remaining to cap a come-from-behind 31-27 victory against Florida Atlantic. Neal threw and rushed for more yards against the Owls than in any other game this season. That said, don’t be surprised if Neu is more conservative with how much Neal throws against Northern Illinois, particularly if the rushing attack is effective early.

This is the most wounded Huskies team, both literally and figuratively, the Cardinals have faced in the Bronze Stalk era. Certainly there are intangibles inherent to any rivalry game. The stakes feel bigger in this one, though. This may end up being the game that cements the decision to get Carey out of town. This may end up being the game that catapults the Cardinals into the MAC West championship discussion. Or this may end up being the game with a very familiar outcome for both Ball State and Northern Illinois fans.

Either way, it’s sure to be a fun watch.

Ball State and Northern Illinois are scheduled for a 3:30 pm ET kickoff this Saturday at Scheumann Stadium in Muncie, Indiana.