With the season already a third of the way over, the NIU football team will look to jump-start its offense Wednesday at Ball State.
After losing, 49-30, to Buffalo to start the year in a game in which the Huskies (0-2) had five turnovers, three that were returned for touchdowns, the offense sputtered in a 40-10 loss to Central Michigan. NIU managed only 244 yards in the loss and didn't score until the final six minutes, its first touchdown coming in the closing seconds.
The Cardinals (1-1) have a 38-31 loss to Miami this year and beat Eastern Michigan, 38-31, last week.
Ball State won last year's meeting, 27-20, to reclaim the Bronze Stalk for the first time in 10 years.
"There's no way to overlook Northern Illinois. I don't care what's happened the previous to games," fifth-year Ball State coach Mike Neu said. "That was our first win last year in 10 tries. There's nothing that needs to be said to our football team other than that."
Kickoff is 6 p.m. Wednesday on ESPN News.
Here are five things to watch in the trophy battle.
Can the Huskie defense stifle another team's star offensive player?
In Week 1, the Huskies held Buffalo's Jaret Patterson to 20 carries, 137 yards and a touchdown, letting him get loose once on his score for 56 yards.
In Week 2 Kobe Lewis managed only 59 yards on 16 carries and a score against the NIU defense.
This week, the Huskies will try to limit Caleb Huntley, who ran for 204 yards last week and 157 yards and two scores last year against NIU in DeKalb.
"I think we're playing team defense and we have a lot more speed out there," second-year NIU coach Thomas Hammock said. "We have a lot more people that can cover up a mistake. We're not playing perfect football on defense by any means, but at the same time the level of effort, physicality and discipline are there, and that allows guys, if a guy misses a tackle, the next guy makes it."
Defensive end Michael Kennedy said the team is just trying to do its job, not necessarily looking at the names on the back of the jersey.
"We're just looking at them as a faceless opponent," Kennedy said. "We just play them hard, play them like we would in practice against our starters."
What will the young NIU defense accomplish against the Ball State offense?
The Cardinals are putting up more than 500 yards a game, while the Huskies are allowing fewer than 400.
Aside from Huntley, Hammock said Drew Plitt is a solid quarterback, and receiver Justin Hall spreads the field both ways with his speed on deep passes and the sweep.
"What a great offense they have," Hammock said. "They have great players. They really know how to stretch the field both vertically and horizontally."
Even though they've allowed almost 45 points a game, Hammock said the defense is playing well. Twenty-one of those points came straight from turnovers against Buffalo.
Hammock said if the offense gets going, the defense will become stronger.
"They were holding on, playing extremely hard," Hammock said. "Offensively, if we make some plays and get them some more energy, that becomes contagious."
After not recording a sack against Buffalo, NIU got three against the Chippewas.
"We just made a big improvement from last week, listening to what the coaches were telling us," Kennedy said. "We just came with more pressure, more intensity, played with a little more confidence getting that first game under our belt."
Neu said the youth of the Huskies doesn't really matter.
"They've got five starters in there that are freshmen," Neu said. "They've had some turnover from a personnel perspective, but those guys are extremely talented, and you can see that on tape. It's one of those teams, man, that although the first two weeks haven't gone the way they hoped, there's still enough good stuff on film. ..."
What role with true freshman quarterback Dustin Fletcher have in the offense?
At his news conference Friday, Hammock continued his trend of mentioning Fletcher, who's been coming back from an injury.
Hammock has mentioned him repeatedly without prompting at news conferences this year, and on the depth chart released Sunday he was listed as one of Ross Bowers' two backups, replacing Andrew Haidet.
"I think for us, offensively, we continue to evaluate all the positions," Hammock said. "The quarterback is one that certainly runs the show offensively. I think we have to play better around him. Obviously there are some guys we want to give an opportunity to as well. Dustin Fletcher is continuing to get better and we'll continue to incorporate him a little more as we continue to move forward."
Haidet and Rodney Thompson have both seen playing time this year behind Bowers, something Hammock said wasn't a function of the game being blowouts, but rather because he wanted to see what each could do.
Bowers is 33-of-60 passing for 341 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
Hammock said the team has been cautious in bringing back Fletcher.
"He was coming back from an injury in high school and we didn't want to rush him," Hammock said. "He's been fully cleared the past three weeks. We wanted to give him more time to get comfortable in the offense, to have a chance to continue to get the reps. We upped his reps last week and will continue to do so. I think he's getting extremely close to getting ready to play for us."
How will the Huskies' thinning linebacking corps hold out?
Lance Deveaux was a late scratch before the Central Michigan game, suffering an injury during practice.
"He'll be out for a little bit. We don't have an exact timeframe," Hammock said. "Daveren Rayner played good football last week, and we're excited about him and his progress and his development."
Rayner was tied for second on the Huskies with seven tackles last week in place of Deveaux. Jordan Cole, a backup who gets on the field a lot, was hurt in the CMU game, suffering a leg injury that resulted in him being carted off the field.
"Obviously, the initial shock was tough," Hammock said. "But he's in good spirits. He's going to get surgery next week to get it fixed. And the recovery process is a lot quicker than I anticipated, obviously, seeing the injury. But he sent the message out to the team, 'Let's go get the stalk this week.'"
What's a road game in a COVID-19 world going to look like?
Hammock said he couldn't comment on specific numbers of players who have tested positive for the coronavirus, as most other Division I schools have.
But Hammock did go into detail about what Wednesday's trip to Muncie, Indiana, will look like, the first of three road games in the final four weeks for NIU.
"We're obviously taking a lot more precaution," Hammock said. "One example, we're going to take more buses. We got kids in cohorts based on how they've been testing, based on roommates, and we're going to try to keep them in groups on the road. We're not going to have any sit-down meals. We're going to grab and go. We're trying to continue to avoid staying in close contact indoors. That's the big thing."