The third week of #MACtion for the 2020 college football season continues on Wednesday night when Northern Illinois faces off against Ball State. The Huskies (0-2) are still looking for their first win, while the Cardinals (1-1) need a victory to keep pace in the MAC West race.
Northern Illinois is hoping to avoid its first 0-3 start since 2016, and to do that, the Huskies will need to show major improvement on both sides of the ball. The offense took a step back in last week's 40-10 home loss to Central Michigan compared to the opener against Buffalo, and the defense has struggled to get many stops or game-changing plays.
Ball State bounced back from a tough season-opening loss to defending MAC champion Miami (Ohio) to defeat Eastern Michigan 38-31. The Cardinals trailed the Eagles by 11 points in the third quarter before finding their rhythm and outscoring them 25-7 over the final 20 minutes of the game.
Ball State also is seeking its first winning streak over Northern Illinois since 2007-08. Prior to last year's 27-20 victory in DeKalb, the Huskies had defeated the Cardinals 10 straight times.
Northern Illinois at Ball State
Kickoff: Wednesday, Nov. 18 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Ball State -14
When Northern Illinois Has the Ball
It certainly hasn't been pretty for the Huskies' offense this season. Quarterback Ross Bowers is barely completing 55 percent of his pass attempts for 341 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. He's only averaging 5.7 yards per pass and has been sacked twice. There have been plenty of underthrown and overthrown balls from Bowers. He's also looked indecisive at times, which leads to him holding on to the ball a little longer than needed.
Rodney Thompson and Andrew Haidet also have gotten reps under center this year. But most of those snaps have come late in the second half, and their numbers reflect that (combined 3-of-7 passing for 70 yards). Perhaps the time has come to give one or both more playing time to see if they can seize the starting job from Bowers. With this representing the halfway point through the six-game schedule, NIU really can't afford another loss.
The running game also has been a collective effort with three guys already earning double-digit carries. But the combination of Erin Collins (team-high 92 rushing yards), Harrison Waylee (89), and Rondarius Gregory (47) hasn't done much damage. As a team, the Huskies are averaging 115.0 rushing yards per game and a mere 2.9 yards per carry. Both of those numbers are the worst in the MAC. NIU could really use one of these backs to break out with a big game, as Tre Harbison III (now at Charlotte) did last year against Ball State when he ran for 146 yards and two touchdowns.
Wednesday night's matchup could help NIU find its footing on offense. Ball State enters this game giving up 449.5 yards and 34.5 points per game. The Cardinals have been particularly susceptible to the pass (269.0 ypg, 10th in MAC) in the early going with no interceptions through two games compared to 15 last year, which led the conference.
When Ball State Has the Ball
Drew Plitt quarterbacks an offense that's hit the 30-point mark in both games this season. Plitt ranks third in the MAC in both completion rate (65.1 percent) and passing yards (541) and sits sixth in passer rating (141.3). Plitt's production has helped Ball State average 507.0 yards per game thus far.
The three biggest reasons for Plitt's strong numbers are his wide receivers: Antwan Davis (13 receptions, 179 yards, 13.8 ypr), Justin Hall (11 receptions, 179 yards, 1 touchdown), and Yo'Heinz Tyler (12 receptions, 130 yards, 1 touchdown). The aerial attack is complemented by the conference's rushing leader, Caleb Huntley. A workhorse, Huntley is tops in carries (55), rushing yards (334), and rushing touchdowns (5), and he's doing it all on a healthy 6.1 yards per attempt.
Northern Illinois' defense will have its hands full trying to stop either aspect of Ball State's offense. The Huskies are in the middle of the pack among MAC teams in terms of yards allowed per game (395.0, sixth) but are second to last when in scoring defense (44.5 ppg).
Ball State broke a 10-game losing streak to Northern Illinois with a 27-20 road victory last season. The Huskies still lead the overall series (24-21-2) between these MAC West rivals, but unless they can get their offense going, the Cardinals simply have too much firepower for NIU to handle.
Prediction: Ball State 30, Northern Illinois 20
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Drew Plitt photo courtesy of Ball State Athletics)