DeKALB – Each of the past three seasons, Northern Illinois safety Trayshon Foster has taken part in his own tradition with the Bronze Stalk Trophy after a win over Mid-American Conference rival Ball State.
“I love that trophy. It may be ugly, but I love it,” Foster said. “For the past three years, I’ve been able to take pictures on my Instagram with it, and hopefully we execute our game plan and I’ll be able to take a fourth and final picture with it my senior year. It’s dear to my heart. I don’t want it to leave the building. We’ve had it, what, 10 years? I don’t want to be the senior class that hands over the trophy.”
More than any other opponent the Huskies (1-3) have played this season, Ball State (1-3) is set up to throw the ball a majority of its snaps. The Cardinals’ 178 passes are the 17th most out of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision programs and the second most among MAC teams, with only Akron throwing more.
For that reason, NIU defenders are licking their chops at the chance to get after the Cardinals’ offense.
“It’s definitely exciting as a DB,” Foster said. “You get to challenge balls in the air. You get to showcase your abilities, your strength.”
Saturday is a chance for the Huskies’ defensive line to get after the quarterback after NIU recorded two sacks at Vanderbilt last week and provided more consistent pressure after struggling to do so in its first three games of the season.
“Their offensive line is much improved from last year, and their skill guys on the perimeter, they’re dangerous,” defensive end Marcus Kelly said. “So we’ve definitely got to do our job and get after the quarterback. They get the ball out quick. You’re not going to get to there all 50 times, so when we’re not, we’ve got to get our hand up. We’ve got to get in the passing lanes and do what we can.”
After four weeks of play, Cardinals quarterback Drew Plitt is ranked fourth in the FBS in passing yards a game (343.3), and Ball State ranks 27th in total offense a game (470.3 yards).
“Drew, he has done such a good job of running the offense,” Ball State coach Mike Neu said. “He’s in complete command when he’s on the field, and it all starts with how he prepares. He’s so consistent with his preparation.”
Foster pointed at Justin Hall and Riley Miller as two talented Cardinals receivers who impress him. The duo, as well as teammate Antwan Davis, have combined for 824 receiving yards.
“They do a nice job of taking what the defense gives them,” NIU coach Thomas Hammock said. “If you’re playing off coverage, they’ll throw a smoke or a now and let their receivers make a play. If you’re playing press coverage, they’ll drop back and throw play-action. They do a nice job of scheming up what you’re doing defensively and trying to attack those weaknesses.”
Hammock keyed in on a few points of emphasis for the Huskies’ defense.
“They’re very dangerous,” Hammock said. “I think anytime you throw the ball 50 to 60 times a game, there’s an opportunity that one guy can break a tackle and take it the distance, so we have to be assignment-sound. We have to tackle in space, we have to be aggressive and have to play with confidence on the back end of our defense.”
Offensively, NIU is looking for more from the running game, with the Huskies having put up 108 rushing yards on 31 carries in the loss to the Commodores. Jordan Nettles’ 34-yard run Saturday was the longest of the season for the Huskies.
“We don’t want Ross [Bowers] getting touched, and we want to run the ball down people’s throats every single game,” center C.J. Perez said.
With both teams sporting 1-3 records, Neu voiced that NIU will be looking to refocus for conference play.
The Cardinals also have tested themselves in nonconference play, with games against Indiana and North Carolina State on the road. Ball State’s victory came against Football Championship Subdivision program Fordham. NIU’s lone victory this season came against an FCS program as well in Illinois State.
“They’re still the defending MAC champions. We play at their place to open up MAC play for us,” Neu said. “Obviously they’ll be looking to reset.”
The Huskies will be without starting linebacker Jordan Cole, who was slapped with a first-half suspension for a targeting penalty in the Vanderbilt loss.
With a 10-game winning streak in the rivalry – Ball State won in the inaugural season of the trophy, 2008 – NIU players touted their preparedness to keep the Bronze Stalk in DeKalb.
“We don’t want to be the senior class known for losing the Stalk,” Kelly said. “We want to keep it here in DeKalb, and we want to keep it as long as we can.”
Whether the trophy itself is an eyesore doesn’t matter to Perez and the Huskies.
“Due to popular votes, yes, yes it is [ugly], but it’s our ugly trophy,” Perez said. “But we’re not giving it away whether it’s ugly or not.