The battle to win the MAC West comes into focus on Wednesday night with Northern Illinois hosting Ball State in a crucial MACtion showdown. The Huskies lead the West Division at 4-1 in conference play, but the Cardinals are a game behind at 3-2 and can take control of first place with a win.
Northern Illinois suffered its first defeat in conference play last Wednesday, dropping a 52-47 shootout at Kent State. However, while the loss was damaging to the quest to win the West, the Huskies are sitting in a good spot and hold tiebreakers over Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan (both teams with two defeats in conference action so far). Coach Thomas Hammock went 5-7 in his debut season (2019) at his alma mater and went 0-6 last year. However, NIU has shown marked improvement this season, as the season started with a huge road win at Georgia Tech and continued with a five-game winning streak prior to last week's loss. If the Huskies beat Ball State, a win over Buffalo should be all this team needs to return to Detroit for the conference title game.
Ball State started its November MACtion with a close call at Akron (31-25). The Cardinals were able to hang on thanks to a late turnover by the Zips, improving coach Mike Neu's squad to 5-4 overall and 3-2 in MAC games. The defending MAC West champs started 2020 with a 1-3 record, but Ball State has won four out of its last five, including matchups versus Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan. Returning to Detroit for the conference title game requires a win in DeKalb, but if Neu's team is able to earn the victory, the next two matchups —Central Michigan and Buffalo — take place at home in Muncie.
Northern Illinois holds a 24-22-2 series edge over Ball State. However, the Cardinals have won two in a row, including a 27-20 victory in DeKalb in 2019. The last three matchups between these two teams have been decided by eight points or fewer.
Ball State at Northern Illinois
Kickoff: Wednesday, Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Ball State -2.5
When Ball State Has the Ball
Ball State's offense isn't performing anywhere close to the level this team used to win the MAC last season, but Neu's group might be finding its rhythm at the right time. The Cardinals are averaging 28.6 points in MAC contests (down from 34.3) and 5.11 yards per play (down from 5.82). However, after a slow start, this unit has averaged at least five yards a snap in each of the last four contests and scored 30 or more points in three out of the last four games.
Quarterback Drew Plitt is the steady conductor of the offense, throwing for 1,776 yards and 14 touchdowns to just four picks. The senior has tossed just one interception in MAC play and ranks fourth among qualified MAC signal-callers in completion percentage (63.2). Receiver Justin Hall is Plitt's favorite target (56 catches), with Jayshon Jackson (39) and Yo'Heinz Tyler (32) rounding out a strong trio on the outside. Plitt and the three receivers are a tough matchup for a Northern Illinois secondary that has allowed more than 300 passing yards in each of its last two matchups and recorded just one interception all year. The Huskies also have only 11 sacks, so the defensive backs can't expect a ton of help from the front in the form of pressure against a Ball State offensive line that has struggled with injuries this fall.
Freshman Carson Steele powers Ball State's ground game, and the Indiana native has posted two 100-yard games in the team's last three contests. Steele gashed Akron for 154 yards last week and is a tough matchup for a Northern Illinois defense giving up nearly six yards per rush (5.97) in MAC contests.
Stopping opposing offenses has been a problem for Northern Illinois in recent weeks — a trend Hammock's team needs to reverse against Ball State's efficient attack. The defense surrendered 7.04 yards per play against Central Michigan on Oct. 23 and allowed 9.1 against Kent State last Wednesday. Overall, MAC opponents average 6.98 yards per snap versus NIU's defense, which are the most in the league. Also, this unit is giving up 31.2 points in conference games and has been prone to giving up big plays (19 of 40-plus yards).
When Northern Illinois Has the Ball
In last week's loss to Kent State, Northern Illinois posted season highs in yardage (663) and points (47). Hammock's group prefers to lean on the run (46.4 attempts a game), but it was the passing attack (532 yards) that led the way against the Golden Flashes. The Huskies enter Wednesday night's game tied for third in the MAC in scoring (31.7 ppg) and sixth in the conference in yards per play (5.92).
Quarterback Rocky Lombardi set a school record with 532 passing yards in the loss at Kent State last week, connecting on 33 of 57 throws to go with three touchdowns. Lombardi has completed 57.8 percent of his passes for 1,853 yards and 12 scores this year and adds another dimension to the ground game (345 yards). Trayvon Rudolph (32 catches) has been a big-time playmaker on the outside (19.97 per catch) this fall, but No. 2 receiver Tyrice Richie (44) paces the team in catches. Richie left last week's game due to injury and is not listed on the depth chart for Wednesday night's matchup. If Richie is indeed sidelined, Cole Tucker, Messiah Travis, and Mohamed Toure should see more looks in the passing game.
The preferred method of attack is no secret, but Northern Illinois may need to continue the success through the air to win on Wednesday night. In conference-only matchups, Ball State is limiting teams to just 3.7 yards per carry and ranks third in the MAC in fewest rushing yards allowed per game (138.0). After allowing 272 rushing yards to Toledo, no league opponent has rushed for more than 127 yards against this defense. Jay Ducker (579 yards) leads the ground game for Hammock, with Harrison Waylee (574), Clint Ratkovich (270), and Antario Brown (205) also chipping in with plenty of production this year. Waylee has missed the last four games due to injury and is not listed on the depth chart for Wednesday's game. Even with Waylee likely out, Ducker, Ratkovich, and Brown are more than enough options for this offense to depend upon.
After giving up 45 points to Wyoming on Sept. 18, Ball State's defense has allowed just one opponent to eclipse 30 points (Eastern Michigan). The Cardinals are allowing 5.8 yards per play but have limited MAC teams to just 24.4 points a contest. Some of that success is due to takeaways (11) and limiting big plays (just eight of 40-plus). For Ball State to win, defensive coordinator Tyler Stockton has to find a way to slow the NIU ground attack, forcing this offense to win on passing downs. The Cardinals rank seventh in the MAC in pass efficiency defense, but if Richie doesn't play, the task of stopping Rudolph gets a little easier.
The winner of this game will be favored to win the division, so the stakes are high in DeKalb on Wednesday night. Ball State started the 2021 season slow but seems to be rounding into form at the right time. The Cardinals should be able to slow the Huskies by just enough on the ground, while the expected absence of Richie allows the defense to focus more on containing Rudolph. Ball State's offense isn't overly prolific on a per-play basis, but Neu's group can piece together enough drives with Plitt taking to the air with his big-play receivers while mixing in Steele against a suspect NIU rush defense. The Cardinals have won only three times in DeKalb since 2000, but a slight edge goes to Neu's squad as it looks to take a step forward in its quest to repeat as MAC West champs.
Prediction: Ball State 34, Northern Illinois 31
Podcast: Week 10 Recap, Reaction to Coaching Changes and a Preview of CFB Playoff Rankings