DeKalb, IL (SportsNetwork.com) - The Ball State Cardinals can punch their ticket to the Mid-American Conference Championship on Wednesday as they square off with No. 20 Northern Illinois at Huskie Stadium in a battle that could decide the West Division champion.
The Cardinals improved to 9-1 overall and 6-0 in league action last Wednesday with a 44-24 rout of Central Michigan. The victory was the seventh in a row for Ball State, which has also come out of its last four road games with a victory. Coach Pete Lembo's squad has notched impressive wins over Army, Toledo and Virginia during the course of its season and its lone loss came on Sept. 14 at North Texas. A decision over the Huskies would mark the 12th consecutive MAC win for Ball State, which could claim the West Division crown on Wednesday as well.
Northern Illinois has not missed a beat under first-year head coach Rod Carey as it enters with a perfect 9-0 record, including a 5-0 mark versus conference foes. The Huskies are currently on the longest active conference winning streak in the nation having defeated their last 22 MAC opponents. They also own the nation's longest active home winning streak due to their 22 straight triumphs in DeKalb. Carey's squad became the first team in conference history to defeat two Big Ten teams in the same season as it took down Iowa (30-27) and Purdue (55-24) during its non-league slate. The Huskies completed a 63-19 rout of Massachusetts in their last appearance on Nov. 2 and should be well rested after having an open week following the win.
NIU and Ball State are the only two teams remaining in the West Division without a loss in league play. The Cardinals have just one game remaining after this week, while NIU still has to face Toledo and Western Michigan to conclude its regular season. This will be the 41st meeting in history between the two schools. Ball State owns a 20-18-2 all-time series lead and will be looking to avenge the 35-23 loss it was handed by the Huskies in Muncie in 2012.
"I know last year, I think they finished pretty strong," said NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch on this week's opponent. "In their season ender, they were one of the toughest opponents of the MAC last year, they gave us trouble at their place. When the schedule came out, you try to take it only one game at the time, but everyone takes a peek a little farther and saw we had Ball State."
The Cardinals rank No. 1 in the MAC and 16th in the country in passing offense with 323 yards per game and are also second in the conference and 14th nationally in scoring offense at 39.9 ppg. Senior quarterback Keith Wenning has been the leader of the attack. He is the only FBS signal caller with at least 300 passing yards in eight games this year. Wenning continued to impress last week as he completed 20-of-29 attempts for 299 yards and four touchdowns versus CMU. Willie Snead reeled in nine catches for 118 yards and a pair of scores, while Jamill Smith finished with six receptions for 91 yards and one touchdown.
Snead is the MAC's leading receiver across the board this season with 74 catches, 1175 yards and 12 touchdowns through 10 games. He is ranked sixth among FBS players with an average of 117.5 ypg. Horactio Banks paced the team on the ground with 143 yards and a touchdown on just 11 carries last Wednesday. Jahwan Edwards added 90 yards on a team-high 18 rushing attempts. Edwards is tied with Jordan Lynch for the MAC lead with 12 rushing scores despite playing only eight games.
BSU's defense has held every one of its opponents besides North Texas under 30 points this season and is in the middle of the pack in the conference with 419.9 yards allowed per game. Ben Ingle is the leader of the defensive unit with 77 total tackles. Brian Jones has also been a force with 77 stops, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. The Cardinals have kept their opposition off the board by registering 26 takeaways, which is the fifth most among FBS schools.
The Cardinals will have trouble holding the Huskies under the 30-point mark due to the presence of Lynch under center. The senior field general has been the engine to NIU's success with an average of 335.7 total yards of offense per game. Lynch ranks second in nationally in points responsible for with 19 passing touchdowns, 12 rushing scores and a receiving touchdown. Lynch ran for 119 yards on 17 carries with four touchdowns and also completed 10-of-13 passes for 160 yards with a score in just two-plus quarters of play against the Minutemen.
While Lynch is leading the Huskies and the MAC on the ground with 1,150 yards on 173 carries, NIU has a capable tailback in Cameron Stingily, who is sixth in the league with 98 yards per game. More help is on the way as Akeem Daniels, who contributed 447 yards and nine TDs in 2012, is also nearing a return. Tommylee Lewis (62 rec., 552 yards, three TDs) and Da'Ron Brown (33 rec, 480 yards, seven TDs) are Lynch's most frequent targets.
The Huskies were shaky on the defensive side of the ball at the start of the season, but they have clearly developed into a solid unit. They are permitting an average of 25.0 ppg, while stifling opposing ball carriers to only 147.1 ypg to rank second in the MAC in rushing defense. NIU is still last among the 13 teams in the conference versus the pass with an allowance of 271.6 ypg. Jimmy Ward has helped the two-time defending MAC champions overcome their weakness against strong passing attacks with a team-high 39 solo tackles and five interceptions. Senior defensive tackle Ken Bishop is receiving more and more credit each week for his contributions on the front.
"His first step is really quick. He uses his post hand really well, and then when he gets his other hand in there he can shed a block extremely quick," said Carey when explaining how Bishop has managed to be so disruptive. "He has good hips so his body can torque, so when he's shedding a block his feet can be going one way, and his upper body can be going the other. When you have that combination and you put it with the way he prepares through the week of watching film and knowing what he's going to get and being able to expect certain things versus certain things, then you have a real dangerous player."