Thursday night #MACtion comes to Huskie Stadium as Ball State travels to DeKalb to take on MAC West Division rival Northern Illinois. While the Cardinals and Huskies are familiar rivals, the 2017 season is a story of two programs going in completely different directions.
Ball State (2-7, 0-5 MAC) comes into this game having lost six in a row and still looking for its first conference victory. Compounding this slide is a scoring drought that has seen the Cardinals lose every game by at least 12 points and four of them by 41 or more. To put in another way, Ball State has been outscored 289 to 67 since late September and by 210 points (256-46) in conference games alone.
Northern Illinois (6-3, 4-1) is coming off of a tough, 27-17 loss at Toledo. The Huskies must win if they want to keep pace with the Rockets and have games against Western Michigan and Central Michigan remaining. If Northern Illinois can’t wrest the division title from Toledo, every win does help its eventual bowl destination, so is there still plenty on the line for the Huskies.
Ball State at Northern Illinois
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 9 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Northern Illinois -32
Three Things to Watch
1. Ball State's running game vs. Northern Illinois’ run defense
A bright spot for the Cardinals offense has been the play of freshman running back Caleb Huntley. Listed at 5-foot-10, 225 pounds, Huntley is coming off a solid game against Eastern Michigan, in which he ran for 75 yards on 14 times, nearly five yards per attempt (4.7). Ball State ranks in the middle of the pack in the MAC in rushing offense at 147.3 yards per game, but Northern Illinois has not just been the best in the conference against the run, but also one of the best in the nation. The Huskies are 10th in the FBS as they have allowed just 112.8 rushing yards per game, holding opponents to a scant 2.9 yards per carry while surrendering just seven rushing touchdowns over nine games. The Cardinals know they need to run the ball if they want to have any success on offense, but the going may be tough on the road against Northern Illinois’ stingy defense.
2. Can the Cardinals come up big on special teams?
Ball State is leading the MAC at nearly 24 yards per kickoff return, including one taken back for a touchdown. The Cardinals also are second in the conference on punt returns at 10.9 yards per return. On the flip side, Northern Illinois is second to last in the MAC in kickoff coverage (22.5 ypr, TD allowed) and only eighth (7.6 ypr, TD) on punts. Ball State’s big weapon on special teams is sophomore running back Malik Dunner, who is averaging 26.5 yards per return and took one back 93 yards for a touchdown against UAB. This is one of the few areas where the Cardinals appear to have a clear advantage, at least on paper. Can they take advantage of this on Thursday night?
3. Pass protection for Ball State’s banged-up QBs
Northern Illinois is leading the MAC and is among the top 20 teams in the nation in sacks with 26 through the first nine games. Unfortunately, Ball State has allowed nearly as many (24), which is one reason why the Cardinals are just 10th in the conference in passing offense at 191.4 yards per game with more interceptions (10) than touchdown passes (eight).
Injuries have defined the quarterback position for Ball State this season, as redshirt freshman Drew Plitt became the fourth different starter last week. Returning starter Riley Neal was lost to a leg injury just three games in with backup Jack Milas starting the next four before suffering an elbow injury. Redshirt freshman Zack Blair made his first collegiate start two weeks ago against Toledo before leaving with an ankle injury, opening the door for classmate Plitt, who got the call against Eastern Michigan. Whoever is at quarterback Thursday night, the Cardinals’ offensive line needs to do a better job of protecting him or this game could get out of hand quickly.
Even though Northern Illinois is coming off of a disappointing loss to Toledo, the Huskies have been playing solid football throughout the season, as evidenced by the winning record. On the other hand, Ball State hasn’t really been competitive in a game since the calendar turned to October, and the losing is taking a toll. Northern Illinois should have this game well in hand by the time the clock begins for the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Northern Illinois 42, Ball State 14
(Top photo by Randy Mascharka, courtesy of www.niuhuskies.com)