The Northern Illinois Huskies will host the Ball State Cardinals on Wednesday evening in a critical MAC West showdown.
The Huskies (6-3, 4-1 MAC) currently have a one game lead over the visiting Cardinals (5-4, 3-2 MAC) but if Ball State wins, they will overtake the Huskies atop the West claiming the head-to-head tie-breaker.
The winner of this game controls their own destiny and has a great chance of being the team that represents the West in the MAC Championship Game.
When: Wednesday, November 10th at 7 p.m. (6 p.m. CST)
Where: Huskie Stadium — DeKalb, IL
Weather: Cloudy in the mid-50s at kickoff
Odds: Ball State is favored by 2.5 points but NIU has a 54.2% chance of winning according to ESPN’s FPI
Ball State is coming off a narrow 31-25 victory against Akron, that saw the Zips quarterback literally fumble the game away with under two minutes to go, as the Cardinals recovered the loose ball in their own endzone to avoided the upset.
The Cardinal offense is netting 25.2 points and 344.4 yards per game, with the majority of the yards coming through the air (214.9 passing yards to just 129.6 rushing yards). And with Drew Plitt at quarterback, that’s no surprise.
Plitt has been a solid gunslinger in the MAC for a while now, as the senior QB has over 8,000 passing yards and 64 TDs in his tenure at Ball State. Plitt could reach the 2,000-yard mark against the Huskies as he sits at 1,776 yards on the season and has thrown for 14 touchdowns and just four interceptions. However, Plitt has been sacked 16 times, so the offensive line has given up some pressure.
Ball State has a trio of dangerous receivers, in Justin Hall, Jayshon Jackson, and Yo’Heinz Tyler. Hall leads the team in receptions (56), yardage (579), and is tied with Tyler for most receiving touchdowns (5). Jackson has been equally as effective, hauling in 39 receptions for 485 yards and two TDs while Tyler has 32 catches for 357 yards and those five scores.
On the ground Carson Steele gets the bulk of the carries and he is coming off his best performance of the season. Against the Zips he recorded season highs in carries (27) and rushing yards (154) and now has 582 yards and five TDs on the season. Justin Hall also gets involved in the run game as he has 30 carries, 176 yards, and four rushing touchdowns as well.
The BSU defense is holding teams to 27.6 points (third best in the MAC) and allowing 401.1 yards per game. It’s been tougher to run against them, as they’re only giving up 154.4 rushing yards per game compared to the 246.7 passing yards per game.
This team loves to put pressure on opponents. Eight players have 4+ tackles for loss!! And, as a unit, the defense has amassed 50 TFLs, 20 sacks, forced eight fumbles, and has two safeties on the season.
Speaking of safeties, safety Bryce Cosby has been stellar for the Cardinals. He leads the team in tackles (76), tackles for loss (8), and is second in sacks with four on the year. Cosby has also added two pass break ups, two forced fumbles, and intercepted a pass.
A pair of linebackers - Clayton Coll and Jaylin Thomas - are nipping at Cosby’s heels. Coll has 72 stops, four TFL, a sack, forced a fumble, intercepted a pass, broken up a pass, and recorded a QBH. Thomas is third on the team with 67 tackles and has added four TFLs, two pass break ups, and leads the defense with two interceptions.
Up front, Tavion Woodard leads the way. The D-lineman has 17 tackles, five TFL, five sacks, forced two fumbles, broken up a pass, and has a QBH.
NIU is coming off a record-breaking game against Kent State, even though the Huskies lost their top receiver (Tyrice Richie) early on.
Quarterback Rocky Lombardi and WR Trayvon Rudolph both set single game records for the Huskies - Lombardi threw for 532 yards, breaking the previous school record of 486 (set back in 2005 by Phil Horvath), while Rudolph’s 309 receiving yards surpassed Sam Hurd’s previous record of 266 yards (also from 2005).
After a season that saw the Huskies rely heavily on the run and controlling the ball, they showed they can also be effective passing the ball and scoring quickly. Six of their seven TD drives against Kent State lasted under 3:30 and they had scoring plays of 75-, 36-, and 30-yards.
Lombardi has been going off on teams over the last two games. Against CMU and Kent he went 50/84 (59.5%) and amassed 880 yards and six TDs while throwing zero interceptions. On the year, he has passed for 1853 yards, 12 TDs, while being sacked just seven times and throwing six interceptions. He was knocked unconscious late in the Kent State game but eventually walking off under his own power and Hammock said he should be good to start this week’s game.
Without Richie, Trayvon Rudolph will be the Huskies’ go-to receiver. After Rudolph’s amazing performance last week, he now leads NIU in receiving yards (639) and touchdowns (7) on his 32 receptions. Luckily, the Huskies got Cole Tucker back last week, who can help replace Richie’s production. Tucker, who hadn’t played since September 25, caught five passes for 60 yards last week and has 17 receptions and 266 yards on the season.
After a 101-yard performance last week, Jay Ducker finally surpassed Harrison Waylee as NIU’s leading rusher. Ducker has been great since replacing Antario Brown (who replaced Waylee) three games ago. In his three starts, Ducker has reached 100+ yards in every game, rushing for 210, 183, and 101 respectively. He has 579 yards and two TDs on his 107 carries (5.4/rush).
Defensively the Huskies have struggled all season but have done just enough to keep NIU in the game and steal some wins. The Huskies are allowing 33.8 points and a whopping 448.7 yards per game (second worst in the MAC).
The NIU has struggled to get pressure in the backfield, only tallying 36 tackles for loss this season, with nearly a third of those TFLs (11) also being sacks.
Dillon Thomas and Lance Deveaux Jr. have been solid at linebacker for NIU. Both players have 46 tackles (tied for 3rd on the team) but Thomas leads the team in TFL (5), sacks (3), and also has four QBH, and three pass break ups. Deveaux Jr. has added four TFL, a sack, a QBH, and has also forced a fumble.
Jordan Gandy and Jordan Hansen have been the best Huskie DBs. Gandy has broken up a team-leading eight passes and recovered two fumbles to go along with his 35 tackles and three TFL. Hansen is second on the team with 49 tackles (only fellow DB C.J. Brown has more, with 65) and second in PBUs with four pass break ups. He also has three TFL and has forced a fumble.
This is a HUGE game that will determine the leader of the MAC West.
If the Huskies win, they’re in the drivers seat for MAC Championship Game, as they will have a two game lead with two games to go...and they’d hold tie-breakers over EMU, CMU, Toledo, and Ball State. Only WMU would be able to catch the Huskies.
If Ball State wins, there could be chaos. Ball State would be tied with NIU but hold the tie-breaker over the Huskies. However, if CMU beats Kent, that could send things into a spiral and set up a massive game next week when CMU and Ball State play.
With so much riding on the game, there’s no doubt that this will be a hard fought, tough contest between these two rivals.
The Huskie offense has been on fire lately so, if Lombardi is able to play, I think the Huskies use home field to their advantage and are able to escape another close game with a win.
Ball State - 35
NIU - 38