DeKALB – Caleb Huntley ran up the gut of Northern Illinois' defense on Ball State's first offensive play of the fourth quarter, breaking the Huskies' spirits after a nightmare third quarter.
The Ball State running back picked up yards in chunks all day, and his 45-yard touchdown was what the Cardinals needed for a late lead and eventual 27-20 Mid-American Conference victory to bring the Bronze Stalk Trophy back to Muncie, Indiana, for the first time since 2008.
“It’s a tale of two halves," Huskies coach Thomas Hammock said. "We can come here now and say, ‘the play-calling,’ but after the first half, you would have said the play-calling was pretty good. We have to execute the plays that’s called and that’s on me. Like I said, I’ve never been a guy to shy away from responsibility. My grandfather raised me better than that. I’m going to look in the mirror and see what we can do.”
After Ball State (2-3, 1-0 MAC) went up by seven, Huskies quarterback Ross Bowers threw a tipped interception on the ensuing drive that settled into the hands of Amechi Uzodinma, which he returned to the NIU 23-yard line.
That turned into a Ryan Rimmler field goal for a 10-point Ball State lead. At that point, the Cardinals had scored 24 consecutive points.
"Momentum is the next snap," Hammock said. "We never was able to gain the momentum on the next opportunity. I think that’s something I’ll look in the mirror tonight and say hey, what do we need to do?’"
NIU totaled 12 penalties for 111 yards, six of which came in the third quarter. Weston Kramer was ejected from the game after a personal foul call in the
“They said [Kramer] threw a punch," Hammock said. "I didn’t see the play, so we’ll watch it on tape and see what happened exactly.”
The Huskies had nine consecutive drives end in zero points and six drives in a row that did not go beyond three plays.
“After the first half, I don’t think there were any issues," Hammock said. "We’ve got to put four complete quarters of football together is what we’re striving for. We’ve got to stay in the moment. We have to play the next play. One thing, you look at momentum. Momentum is the next snap. We never were able to gain the momentum on the next opportunity. I think that’s something I’ll look in the mirror tonight and say, 'Hey, what do we need to do?’ ”
The Huskies (1-4, 0-1) mounted their first significant drive of the second half in the fourth quarter, but Bowers' strike of a fourth-down pass was dropped by Dennis Robinson past the first-down marker.
After Ball State cut its 14-point halftime deficit to 11 with a field goal about six minutes into the third quarter, a series of miscues gave the Cardinals a needed boost.
On the ensuing kickoff, Marcus Jones mishandled the ball, which went out of bounds at 2-yard line. Two plays later, running back Tre Harbison fumbled inside the 10, allowing the Cardinals to capitalize.
Harbison ran for 146 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries, but his fumble came at a critical juncture.
“We didn’t really execute. It was just bad execution on offense," Harbison said. "We all don’t blame. We don’t point fingers at nobody. Really, it’s just on ourselves as a whole team.”
Huntley ran in the ball from 3 yards out to cut Ball State's deficit to 17-14. The Cardinals ran for 235 yards on 60 carries. The Cardinals threw the ball only 14 times for 34 yards.
“We thought our guys did a good job of getting some surge,” Ball State coach Mike Neu said. “There were 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.”
Huntley's 157 rushing yards ensured the Cardinals became the third straight opponent with a 100-yard rusher against the Huskies.
“We felt they were going to come out and pass the ball, but our No. 1 focus is always to stop the run, and we just didn’t stop the run," NIU defensive end Matt Lorbeck said.
On the next Huskie drive, Bowers fumbled a snap that was recovered by Ball State's Christian Albright. That led to Rimmler kicking a knuckling 42-yard field goal to tie the game, 17-all.
The game started much differently for the Huskies. On the first play from scrimmage, Antonio Jones-Davis intercepted a Drew Plitt pass, thanks in part to heavy pressure from Lorbeck off the edge. Jones-Davis picked up a sack later in the quarter.
Three plays later, the Huskies found the end zone and a 7-0 lead 75 seconds into the game on a 19-yard pitch around the right edge to Harbison. Harbison added his second touchdown on a 28-yard run on the next NIU drive, which completed a 10-play, 77-yard drive.
John Richardson booted a 24-yard field goal after a 40-yard Harbison run that set the Huskies up deep in Cardinals territory. Richardson later kicked a 38-yard field goal.
The Cardinals were driving late in the second quarter before a Jack Heflin strip sack forced an unsuccessful 52-yard field goal in the pouring rain. A Lorbeck tackle and forced fumble in the final minute of the second quarter erased a potential Ball State field goal chance as Vinny Labus came away with the recovery.
Rimmler kicked the second of two field goals on Ball State's first drive in the third quarter to cut NIU's lead to 17-6. A steady dosage of running plays, led by Huntley, guided the Cardinals down the field.
“Just being physical," Neu said. "We talk about playing the Ball State way, and it’s about playing with tremendous effort, playing with physicality and playing with a next play mindset and all three of those things were on display for us today.”
Jones-Davis had 17 tackles and a sack.