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2023 MAC Football Week 11 Preview: Ball State Cardinals at Northern Illinois Huskies

The Huskies look to get one step closer to bowl eligibility when they host the Cardinals Tuesday night.

NCAA Football: Northern Illinois at Boston College Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

The Northern Illinois Huskies will host the Ball State Cardinals on Tuesday night in the Battle for the Bronze Stalk. After both teams suffered close losses last week, the Huskies (4-5, 3-2 MAC) will look to get back to .500 and one step closer to a bowl game while the Cardinals (2-7, 1-4 MAC) will hope to keep the Bronze Stalk Trophy and cut into NIU’s postseason dreams.

Game notes

  • Time and date: Tuesday, November 7th at 7:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: CBSSN
  • Location: Huskie Stadium — DeKalb, IL
  • Spread: NIU (-10.5)
  • Over/under: 43.5
  • All-time series: NIU leads, 25-23-2
  • Last meeting: Ball State 44, NIU 38 (2OT) — October 1, 2022
  • Last 5 meetings: Ball State leads 3-2
  • Bronze Stalk Trophy (since 2008): NIU leads 11-4

Getting to know the Cardinals

NCAA Football: Ball State at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Ball State offense has struggled this season, only scoring 16.7 points per game, second worst in the NCAA...only behind fellow MAC school Kent State.

Their 149.4 passing yards per game is also one of the lowest in the FBS, sitting at 123rd overall and worst in the MAC. The Cardinals quarterback, Kiael Kelly, took the reigns a few games ago against Toledo.

In his last three starts, Kelly has completed under 51% of his throws (26/51) for 205 yards and an interception with no touchdowns and five sacks. Kelly has played in eight games this season and he is still searching for his first passing touchdown and has just 300 passing yards. However, he is a solid runner and has added 434 yards and four touchdowns on the ground.

The only other Cardinal with more than 100 rushing yards on the season is halfback Marquez Cooper. Cooper has carried the ball 146 times for 674 yards (4.6 yards/carry) and has three scores. He also can make an impact in the passing attack, as he is fourth on the team with 14 receptions for 132 yards.

When Kelly does throw the ball, there are three main targets - wide outs Qian Magwood and Ahmed Edwards and tight end Tanner Koziol. Magwood leads the team with 34 catches and 309 yards but only has one TD. Edwards has 250 yards and a single score on his 20 receptions while Koziol is the only Cardinal with multiple receiving TDs (2) and has 247 yards on 29 catches.

Ball State’s defense has kept them in many of their MAC games this season, only allowing more than 24 points one time in conference games, and holding Toledo’s potent offense to just 13 points.

The Cardinals run defense is second best in the MAC, allowing just 121.1 yards per game on the ground and just 3.7 yards per rush. Which is good news as they play a run-heavy offense in Northern Illinois this week.

Their pass defense has been more porous, giving up 230.2 yards per game and over seven yards per passing attempt.

Linebackers Keionté Newson, Cole Pierce, and Sidney Houston Jr. are all over the field. Newson has 65 total stops, 4.5 tackles for loss, two pass break ups, 1.5 sacks, and forced and recovered a fumble. Pierce is right behind him with 60 tackles but has added 8.5 TFL, five QB hurries, three sacks, two PBU, and forced a fumble. Houston Jr., who is listed as a linebacker/DE hybrid, wreaks havoc in the backfield and leads the team in sacks and tackles for loss, with 5.5 sacks and 12 TFL and is fourth on the team with 47 tackles.

Jordan Riley and Tyler Potts lead the secondary. Riley is third on the team with 51 stops and has added three TFLs and a team-leading six pass break ups. Potts leads the Cardinals with two interceptions and his three PBU are second to Riley. He also has 21 tackles and one TFL.

Getting to know the Huskies

NCAA Football: Northern Illinois at Boston College Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

NIU will have three players suspended for the first half of this game after a scuffle broke out at the end of their last game against Central Michigan but Coach Hammock has not released the names of the three players.

The Huskies, who had won three in a row before falling to the Chips last Tuesday, have also heavily relied on their defense to keep them in games as the offense has been spotty at times.

Northern’s defense is one of the best against the pass, allowing just 158.3 yards through the air per game...which is FIFTH in the FBS (behind Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Air Force). Their defensive passing efficiency is tenth best in the NCAA and opponents are only converting on 37.6% of their third down tries.

Ray Thomas and James Ester continue to dominate up front. Thomas leads the team in tackles (50), tackles for loss (5.5), and QB hurries (5) and also has 1.5 sacks and a PBU. Ester has five TFL, 2.5 sacks, three QBH, and a fumble recovery on his 34 stops. George Gumbs, Devonte O’Malley, and Roy Williams have also gotten to the quarterback, with each of them having 3+ sacks.

In the secondary, NIU has nine interceptions with Nate Valcarcel leading the way with three. JaVaughn Byrd and Cyrus McGarrell each have two.

Jaden Dolphin and Devin Lafayette lead the middle for the Huskies, as hybrid LB/S. They are second and third on the team in tackles and have combined for 82 total tackles, 2.5 TFL, three PBU, two forced fumbles, and a QBH.

On offense, Antario Brown is closing in on 1,000 yards this season. The halfback has 137 rushes for 843 yards on the season (22nd best in the NCAA) and seven touchdowns. His 6.2 yards per rush is second best in the MAC (min. 15 carries) and, if he can repeat his performance from last week, he would hit the millennium mark on the season. Last Tuesday Brown torched CMU for 167 yards on 22 carries and jumped into the top-20 on NIU’s all-time leader board with 2,070 career rushing yards. He sits in 19th now but is on pace to be in the top-15 by the end of the season.

Gavin Williams has also be having a nice season as Brown’s backup, netting 287 yards and three scores on his 58 carries.

Through the air, NIU has had their ups and downs. Quarterback Rocky Lombardi has completed 58.2% of his throws for 1,658 yards and has nine TDs to five interceptions. He has also been sacked 13 times and has fumbled a few times as well.

Trayvon Rudolph has finally passed Kacper Rutkiewicz as the Huskies leading receiver (and Rutkiewicz hasn’t played since October 7th). With Rutkiewicz out again, Rudolph will continue to be the Huskies main target. He has 33 catches for 382 yards and two touchdowns. Rudolph is coming off his best game of the season, where he caught eight passes for 170 yards and had a massive 72-yard TD catch and run last week.

Grayson Barnes and Davis Patterson have also amassed some nice stats for NIU. They both have 16 receptions, with Barnes going for 291 yards and a team-leading three TDs and Patterson adding 197 yards. Tight end Chris Carter has a pair of touchdowns and 145 yards on his eleven catches.