DeKALB – Northern Illinois junior Ryan Graham has the most experience of the Huskies’ three quarterbacks.
Graham, however, has only played in one game this season after suffering a shoulder injury during his Week 1 start against Boston College on Sept. 1.
But the Huskies (6-3, 4-1 Mid-American Conference) received good news this week. Graham began practicing for the first time in more than a month, and NIU coach Rod Carey said Graham could play when the Huskies host Ball State at 6 p.m. Thursday.
“[Graham] looks good. … Rusty like you’d expect,” Carey said. “He’s played a lot of football around here so the rust comes off pretty quick, which is good. … Will be good to give him some game reps.”
In Graham’s absence, sophomore Ryan Santacaterina managed two wins, including a 21-17 victory Sept. 16 at Nebraska, but lost the starting job after tossing five interceptions in four games. Redshirt freshman Marcus Childers took over during the first half against Kent State on Oct. 7 and has started the four games since.
NIU receiver Spencer Tears is excited to have Graham back with the Huskies.
“It really felt good though to see No. 17 back out there,” said Tears, who has 32 catches for a team-high 393 yards and four touchdowns. “It’s going to help a lot because with Ryan Graham being a vet and him knowing the offense a little bit more than all our other quarterbacks, just him being on the sidelines suited up and his presence and just being there, and knowing that we have No. 17 with us.”
After suffering their first MAC loss last week at Toledo, the Huskies are hoping to rebound against a struggling Ball State team.
The Cardinals (2-7, 0-5) have lost six straight games and haven’t won since Sept. 16, when they topped Tennessee Tech, 28-13.
Ball State will be without junior running back James Gilbert and junior quarterback Riley Neal, who are out for the season. The Cardinals continue to lean on their young backfield made up of freshman Caleb Huntley and sophomore Malik Dunner.
“No secret, we’ve got to be able to run the ball,” Ball State coach Mike Neu said. “Credit to [NIU] because they’re playing good defense right now, but we’ve got to rise up to the challenge. … We’ve got guys who have been ready to come in when we really needed them.”
The Huskies counter with the MAC’s best rushing defense, allowing only 112.8 rushing yards a game and limiting opponents to an average of 19.0 points.
“We have a good football team coming in here and I know they have dealt with a ton of injuries,” Carey said. “I know they are playing with a ton of young guys, but those young guys are getting better as the more game snaps they have.”
Carey also said he expects Jordan Huff to be in uniform Thursday. Huff (left ankle), who hasn’t played since Oct. 14 at Buffalo, leads NIU with a team-high 450 rushing yards on 85 carries.
“We know Ball State is one of our rivals so of course we know what trophy we’re playing,” Tears said. “So of course we’ll try to keep that trophy home with us.”
Whether its Graham, Childers or Santacaterina lining up behind center against Ball State, Carey said he wants to see more consistency from the Huskie offense.
“I would hope that we are able to find some consistencies, as we keep trying to practice and get better,” Carey said. “This [offense] is still trying to do that, and that’s the mark of a really good football team. We need to find a way to do that.”
Prediction: Northern Illinois 44, Ball State 10
The Huskies lost their grip of the MAC West last week. Expect them to be hungry against Ball State, which has been outscored, 256-46, in conference play.