DeKALB – Most Northern Illinois fans consider Toledo to be the Huskies’ biggest rival.
However, NIU-Ball State is starting to become a nice rivalry of its own.
In reality, the Huskies don’t really have a natural geographic rival. They’re the only Mid-American Conference school in Illinois, and don’t play Northwestern or Illinois enough to build up any sort of hatred.
When NIU started to have success in the early 2000s, Toledo became the matchup the Huskies looked forward to the most.
Over the past few years, however, NIU’s annual game with Ball State has been critical in the MAC West.
“I know the last two or three games we’ve played them, they always gave us a great competition,” Huskie quarterback Jordan Lynch said at Thursday’s news conference. “.. I think this rivalry’s starting to build up.”
Two seasons ago in DeKalb, NIU had a furious second-half comeback in a 41-38 win over the Cardinals, capped off by Mathew Sims’ game-winning 34-yard field goal.
Last year, NIU actually trailed by two points heading into the fourth quarter before rallying off 14 straight, capped off by a 71-yard touchdown run by Lynch to win, 35-23.
“They’re a great team. I know two years ago we had a tough game at home that came down to a penalty call,” said NIU linebacker Michael Santacaterina, referencing the roughing the passer call which negated Ball State safety Sean Baker’s pick-six in the fourth quarter. “... They’re a great team, we’re excited about this game, we’re ready for the challenge.”
In 2008, the teams started playing for the Bronze Stalk Trophy, which features several bronze cornstalks, referencing the fact both rural campuses are surrounded by cornfields.
Lynch said the trophy has been at practice and around the Yordon Center this week.
Ball State won the initial trophy game, but the Huskies have rolled off four consecutive victories. To keep the Bronze Stalk in DeKalb another season, NIU will have to beat the best squad Ball State has put out on the field since that 2008 team, which was coached by Brady Hoke, now at Michigan. The Cardinals started the 2008 season 12-0 before losing to Buffalo in the MAC Championship Game.
Hoke, a Ball State alum, actually donated $5,000 for Ball State students to bus to DeKalb and attend Wednesday’s game. Ball State can also clinch the MAC West with a victory over NIU.
Cardinals quarterback Keith Wenning, who has thrown for 3,164 yards and 27 touchdowns, would be racking up a bunch of MAC West Offensive Player of the Week honors if not for Lynch, and would also be the favorite for the MAC MVP if the NIU quarterback weren’t putting up more record-setting numbers.
When the teams meet next week, the rivalry will be at center stage on ESPN2. The league hit this right when they scheduled it in a midweek slot late in the season.
Lynch admitted that when looking at NIU’s 2013 slate, this was a game the team had circled.
“When the schedule came out, you try to take it one game at a time,” he said. “Everyone takes a peak a little further and saw that we had Ball State. We knew it was going to come down to this.”