Ball State holds off a late charge by NIU to keep the Bronze Stalk in Muncie for another season by the score of 31-25
After losing its first two games to MAC contenders Buffalo and Central Michigan by a combined score of 89-40, Northern Illinois (0-3) played better against Ball State (2-1), but came up short, falling by a final score of 31-25.
NIU’s offense looked sharp on its opening drive. The script mixed run and pass effectively and NIU executed well. The 7-play, 75-yard drive culminated in a 17-yard touchdown pass from QB Ross Bowers to Tyrice Richie. Bowers looked good on this drive, with an nice strike against man coverage.
Ball State’s offense had mixed results early, where the first drive resulted in a missed FG from 42 yards.
The teams traded punts for most of the remainder of the first quarter.
Ball State finally found some points early in the second quarter, scoring on an eight-play, 78 yard play, capped by a five-yard touchdown pass from Drew Plitt to Antwan Davis. The drive was keyed by a 46-yard run by Tye Evans. Scary to see a dude as big as Evans run as fast as he was moving.
The drive also featured some nice adjustments by Ball State. NIU clearly prioritized slowing down Ball State’s RB Caleb Huntley early by loading the box and also had some success pressuring and sacking Ball State’s QB Drew Plitt.
So, to start the second quarter, Ball State went to some short passes to open receivers on first down instead of running the ball. Once in the red zone, the Cardinals called some pass plays which rolled the pocket left and right, to great effect. With more time to throw and no pressure, Plitt hit his last two passing plays of the drive, including the five-yard TD pass to Davis.
NIU responded quickly to Ball State’s touchdown with a with a six-play, 74-yard drive, keyed by a 47-yard catch and run by NIU freshman WR Trayvon Rudolph.
Overall in the first half, NIU’s offensive strategy was to get the ball to WR Tyrice Richie early and often, whether through the air or on the ground via the jet sweep. Richie had double-digit opportunities in the first half and cashed in with six receptions for 74 yards and a touchdown. Richie had a huge night, finishing with 11 catches for 108 yards.
Amechi Uzodinma II made the play of the game in the second quarter with a 71-yard interception return for touchdown. Uzodinma II made a great play sliding off his man to step in front of another NIU wideout to make the play. Bowers did not see Uzodinma II leave his man and the result was disaster for NIU.
Safety Bryce Cosby was all over the field in the first half on special teams and defense, totaling double-digit stops.
The game went into half tied, 14-14.
Ball State dominated the third quarter but an interception by NIU’s Dillon Thomas probably prevented Ball State from closing out the game after three.
The Cardinals started the third quarter with a strong drive that featured their primary playmakers. Huntley came out to start the second half with 21 yards on the first two carries. WR Yo’Heinz Tyler started to roll with three receptions for 26 yards and Justin Hall chipped in with a 14-yard run on a jet sweep. Tyler had a strong second half, finishing with seven catches for 108 yards and a td on the game. Poised to take the lead, Plitt’s pass on first and goal from the three was well off the mark and intercepted by Thomas in the end zone to kill the drive.
NIU was unable to capitalize on the turnover, punting on 3 plays after -4 yards. Ball State’s defense ran a pretty slick blitz on third down to kill the drive. The Cardinals showed blitz on the strong-side then dropped out the strong-side defenders into coverage and brought the heat from the weakside, resulting in a nine-yard sack.
The third quarter for NIU’s offense went like other third quarters have gone for the Huskies this year: largely unproductive. The Huskies have not scored a point in three games this season in the third quarter.
For three drives starting in the third quarter against the Cardinals, NIU had three punts and a total of 14 yards on 10 plays.
NIU’s situation was made worse in the third quarter when productive linebacker Kyle Pugh, who already had nine tackles, was disqualified on a questionable targeting call.
NIU gave up more points in the second half vs the first half for the third time this year, although the 17 points allowed to the Cardinal in the second half tonight was an improvement when compared with the 31 points allowed to CMU and 28 points allowed to Buffalo. Fair to wonder if this is part of a bigger trend in the MAC where teams playing a lot of young players like, NIU, the Akron Zips and the Bowling Green Falcons run out of gas in the second half?
Ball State’s second drive of the third quarter was similar to the first drive but this time the Cardinals finished the drive, punching the ball in for the score on a Huntley three-yard run to take a 20-14 lead (the two-point conversion was no good).
The key play was a really nice play call set up by a loss of yards on first down. On first and ten from NIU’s 17, the Huskies stopped Huntley for a one-yard loss. On the play, it was clear outside contain was abandoning its posts to try to stop Huntley. On second and eleven, Ball State called a play action pass, where Plitt faked to Huntley then rolled outside the pocket and found a wide open Cody Rudy for 15 yards.
The teams traded touchdowns and field goals in the fourth quarter to bring the game within a score, Cardinals leading 31-25.
With 44 seconds remaining, NIU attempted an onside kick which was recovered by Ball State and the Cardinals closed the game out to keep the Bronze Stalk in Muncie for another year.
Life doesn’t get easier for the 0-3 Huskies, who travel to take on undefeated Western Michigan (3-0) on Saturday, November 28, at 12 p.m. ET on ESPN+. Ball State, 2-1, heads to Toledo for a key MAC West matchup against the 2-1 Rockets, also on Nov. 28 at 12 p.m. ET on ESPN3.