DeKALB — Rather than pushing a square peg into a round hole, the Ball State offense made a needed adjustment in the Cardinals' 27-20 Bronze Stalk Trophy game victory at NIU Saturday.
The Cardinals went under center and ran the ball with fortitude after struggling to pass the ball throughout the first half.
The Northern Illinois pass rush had reawakened, but there was nothing NIU could do to rush quarterback Drew Plitt when the Cardinals began to run the ball downhill every down.
“We do inside zone, outside zone, we do some power, some counter, run the quarterback a time or two," Ball State coach Mike Neu said. "Playing under center is important, especially on a day like today when you shotgun creates for opportunities for the ball to slip … being able to play under center, our quarterback is really confident doing that. Our offensive line does a good job."
Pressure from Matt Lorbeck on the first play from scrimmage helped force an interception for Antonio Jones-Davis. Lorbeck later stripped Plitt for a Huskie recovery.
“We’ve certainly got to get after him more than we did," Lorbeck said. "I thought we did an okay job. We can do better.”
Jones-Davis had a strip sack and laid a heavy hit on Plitt. Jack Heflin also had a strip sack.
“I think our pass rush was good," Jones-Davis said. "We’ve got to continue to improve on our pas rush and get the quarterback down and get him under duress."
Following a performance against Vanderbilt in which the Huskies found success in the pass rush, the Huskies stepped that part of the defense up against the Cardinals, but couldn't get home for more sacks in the second half, as the Cardinals abandoned the pass and went under center, repeatedly handing the ball off to feature back Caleb Huntley. Huntley toted the ball 20 times in the second half.
Ball State ran for over 110 yards each half (235 total) and only dropped back to pass three times in the second half.
“We thought our guys did a good job of getting some surge,” Neu said. “There was some tough yards, some grind-it-out yards yards obviously. We split one there on the 45-yard touchdown by Caleb, but there were some grind-it-out yards.”
The issues the Huskies have incurred stopping the run, accompanied by the injury issues that have forced Marshé Terry down to linebacker and true freshman walk-on Nick Rattin into action, increasing the likelihood teams will attack the Huskies through the heart of the defense.
Over the last three weeks, NIU has surrendered rushing totals of 235 (Ball State), 184 (Vanderbilt) and 238 (Nebraska). The Huskies have yielded a 100-yard rusher each of the last three games, something NIU had stopped from happening the 17 games prior.
While Jones-Davis was one of several Huskies with handfuls of tackles (17 in all), the thinning nature of the Huskie ground defense could prove a hindrance Saturday at Ohio.