Ball State vs. NIU: The Rodney Dangerfield Game of the Day for Oct. 6
If Rodney Dangerfield were still alive, he would probably be making plans to attend this Saturday's contest between the Ball State Cardinals and the Northern Illinois Huskies. This matchup is a perfect example of a game that is not receiving any fanfare but has the makings of an exciting college football game.
As Rodney would've put it, they're getting "no respect."
NIU comes to Scheumann Stadium in Muncie, Indiana with a record of 4-1. The Huskies will be looking for their fourth straight victory after opening their season with an 18-17 loss to the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Northern Illinois is one of just 10 FBS programs to win at least 11 games in each of the last two years. Last season, the Huskies won their first Mid-American Conference championship in football since 1983. This year, NIU defeated the Central Michigan Chippewas 55-24 to begin MAC play at 1-0.
Ball State returns home with a 3-2 record after losing a conference game to the Kent State Golden Flashes on the road 45-43. The Cardinals have already defeated Indiana from the Big Ten and South Florida out of the Big East. Ball State started its season with a win against fellow MAC West foe Eastern Michigan.
Northern Illinois has won five of the last six games played against Ball State at Scheumann Stadium. In Muncie, the overall series is tied 9-9.
This game is not only a key MAC West showdown, but this is the fifth year these two combatants are playing for "The Bronze Stalk." NIU has won the trophy three years in a row after Ball State won the inaugural edition.
For the fans that will attend the game or view it on television, they will be treated to several outstanding players and interesting storylines. Read on for my analysis of the game that deserves more respect.
In last week's game against Kent State, Ball State's starting quarterback, Keith Wenning, tied a school record with five touchdown passes and set a career high with 445 yards passing. Wenning will make his 28th consecutive start on Saturday.
For the season, Wenning has completed 64.2 percent of his passes for 1,306 yards with 10 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Both of his picks occurred in the contest against the Clemson Tigers.
Wenning may not have a strong arm, but he compensates for that weakness with a knack for reading defenses and finding the open receiver. At this point, Wenning has total command of the offense with the confidence to bring his team back from fourth-quarter deficits.
Conventional wisdom indicated that Northern Illinois would struggle to find a replacement for quarterback Chandler Harnish, the 2011 MAC Offensive Player of the Year. However, Jordan Lynch has flourished in his first year as a starter.
After five games, Lynch has completed 80 of his 135 passing attempts (59.3 percent) for 1,060 yards and eight touchdowns. More importantly, he leads the Huskies with 582 yards rushing on 85 carries.
Lynch can be best described as a combination of a linebacker, a tailback, and a quarterback. He is currently ranked in the top 20 in the FBS in three different categories and is in the top 50 in passing efficiency.
Lynch is leading all FBS quarterbacks with 116.4 rushing yards per game. He is one of a few quarterbacks that excels at throwing the football while running to his left as a right-handed quarterback. Lynch has tricked defenses several times by faking a quarterback sneak and then quickly passing to an open receiver down the middle of the field.
Advantage: Northern Illinois
Currently Ball State is 27th in the FBS in rushing offense, averaging 213.6 yards per game. The Cardinals have the luxury of being able to rotate three running backs without suffering any noticeable dropoff.
Jahwan Edwards leads Ball State with 470 yards rushing on 83 attempts. He is averaging 5.7 yards per carry while scoring five touchdowns. However, since gaining 200 yards against Eastern Michigan, Edwards has only averaged 67.5 rushing yards in the other four contests.
Horactio Banks is Ball State's change-of-pace back. His blazing speed has to led to Banks totalling 290 yards on 51 carries. 54 of those yards have come on one play.
Barrington Scott has rushed for 118 yards as the Cardinals' third-sting running back. None of the three running backs is a great threat catching the ball out of the backfield as Edwards leads the trio with just five receptions.
Jordan Lynch is NIU's major threat to run the ball, but junior running back Leighton Settle has recently shown improvement. Settle enjoyed his best game running the ball against Central Michigan last Saturday, gaining 152 yards on 23 carries and scoring three touchdowns.
Besides Lynch and Settle, no rusher on the Huskies has more than 11 carries so far this season.
Edge: Ball State
Jack Tomlinson may have been Ball State's key returning receiver entering into this season, but sophomore Willie Snead has caught 38 more passes than Tomlinson so far in 2012. After five games, Snead has caught 41 passes for 537 yards and four touchdowns.
Against Kent State, Snead totalled 216 yards and two touchdowns on 14 receptions. Not only is Snead productive, but he has also made several catches that deserve to be on highlight packages.
At 5'8", Jamill Smith may be small in stature, but he has come up big for the Cardinals. Smith has two receiving touchdowns to go along with his 30 catches so far this season.
Connor Ryan is a reliable target for Ball State and tight end Zane Fakes has converted his 13 receptions into two touchdowns.
Northern Illinois possesses a trio of fast receivers. Martel Moore leads his team with 23 catches and 379 receiving yards. His five touchdowns and 16.5 yards-per-catch average also tops the Huskies.
While Moore sometimes struggles with physical cornerbacks, senior Perez Ashford has routinely made difficult catches in traffic. Tommylee Lewis has displayed big-play ability, scoring twice on his 13 receptions.
The Huskies' playbook includes several formations utilizing multiple tight ends. While Jason Schepler and Tim Semisch are primarily blockers, Luke Eakes has averaged 37.7 yards on his three receptions.
Edge: Ball State
Projected OL Starters for Ball State
QT Austin Holtz
QG Kitt O'Brien
OC Dan Manick
SG Jordan Hansel
ST Cameron Lowry
Ball State is tied for 10th in fewest sacks allowed, giving up just 0.6 per game. Dan Manick's move from tackle to center has solidified the middle for the Cardinals. The play of guard Kitt O'Brien has head coach Pete Lembo believing that O'Brien will have an opportunity to play in the NFL.
Projected OL Starters for Northern Illinois
LT Tyler Loos
LG Jared Volk
OC Andrew Ness
RG Adam Conlon
RT Ryan Brown
Northern Illinois started the season with only guard Jared Volk having ever started any games on the offensive line. However, the line has surpassed expectations by leading the way for the Huskies in becoming the best running attack in the MAC.
The offensive line has also been adept at pass protection as it only has allowed six sacks after five games. Continued improvement for this unit is expected as none of the starters are seniors, and Adam Conlon and Andrew Ness are redshirt freshmen.
Edge: Ball State
For most of the year, Ball State has had difficulty rushing the passer. The Cardinals have only tallied six sacks in five games.
That number would be even worse if not for the emergence of defensive end Jonathan Newsome. Newsome did not participate in the first two games of 2012 but still has four sacks on the season.
The steady play of defensive tackle Nathan Ollie has allowed Ball State's linebackers to better attack the running game of the opposition. The Cardinals currently rank 73rd against the run after finishing 113th in 2011.
Unlike Ball State, Northern Illinois has had little difficulty in developing a pass rush. Defensive end Alan Baxter has sacked the quarterback five times this year while totalling seven tackles for loss overall.
Fellow end Joe Windsor has chipped in with four sacks this year as a reserve. The Huskies will sometimes replace ends with tackles to cause havoc for offensive linemen on obvious passing plays.
Ken Bishop and Nabal Jefferson have both performed solidly anchoring the interior of the defensive line.
Edge: Northern Illinois
Clearly, the strength of Ball State's defense comes from the linebacking corps. The three top tacklers on the team are the three starting senior linebackers.
Middle linebacker Travis Freeman leads the Cardinals with 54 tackles. Although Freeman is known as a physical player against the run, he is also adept at rushing the passer and dropping back into pass coverage.
Weak-side linebacker Tony Martin has tallied 40 tackles so far while Kenneth Lee has one sack to go along with 29 tackles.
Senior Tyrone Clark anchors a somewhat pedestrian linebacking unit for Northern Illinois. The aggressive linebacker is second on the team with 37 tackles, four of which have gone for loss.
Victor Jacques started at middle linebacker against Iowa but has been out of the lineup with a sprained knee ever since. Jacques has been replaced by redshirt freshman Boomer Mays. NIU was already weak at this position because Devon Butler was kicked off the squad in July after being involved in a stabbing incident.
Northern Illinois struggled mightily against the option attack of the Army Black Knights but has stopped the run better against more traditional offenses.
Edge: Ball State
The lack of a pass rush has undermined the effectiveness of Ball State's secondary. Against Indiana, the Cardinals gave up 423 yards through the air, while a team not known for throwing the football, Kent State, tallied 295 yards passing.
Ball State has experienced corners in Jeffrey Garrett, Armand Dehaney and Jason Pinkston, but they have had difficulty in defending short passes thrown to wide receivers. Sophomore strong safety Brian Jones has done well in run support and has recorded one of three interceptions the Cardinals have this year.
Experience has been a major factor in the improvement of NIU's secondary. All four starters from last year return to the team that now ranks 20th in pass defense after slotting in at 89th last year. The Huskies have also improved their pass efficiency defense from 69th last season to a current ranking of 26th.
Jimmie Ward leads Northern Illinois with 51 tackles acting as a hybrid outside linebacker/safety. Rashaan Melvin has seven pass breakups so far but still has a tendency to experience mental lapses during the game. Three forced fumbles show that safety Dechane Durante has become proficient at dislodging the ball from opposing ball carriers.
Edge: Northern Illinois
For his career at Ball State, kicker Steven Schott has made 20 of his 21 field goals from 39 yards out or less. Schott has missed an extra point and two field goals so far this season. He did convert on a 42-yard field goal as time expired to help the Cardinals defeat the Indiana Hoosiers.
Ball State currently ranks 10th in net punting. Scott Kovanda has a punting average of 42.0 with no touchbacks while opponents have returned just two of his punts for a 2.0 yard average.
Jamill Smith is basically the exclusive return specialist for the Cardinals. Smith averages 23.9 yards per kick return and 6.8 yards per punt return. Ball State allowed Kent State's Dri Archer to return a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown.
NIU's Matthew Sims is a very similar kicker to Ball State's Schott. Sims kicked two game-winning field goals last season and has succeeded on four of his five attempts so far this year. Just like Schott, Sims has missed one extra point in 2012.
Tommylee Lewis displayed his playmaking ability last season when he returned two kickoffs for touchdowns against the Toledo Rockets. However, Lewis is averaging just 21.9 yards per kick return this year.
Perez Ashford is averaging 8.6 yards on his punt returns while NIU's opponents average 5.0.
In 2008, Brady Hoke led Ball State to a 12-2 record. However, Ball State struggled for the next two years with Stan Parrish in charge, winning just six of 18 contests.
Last year under Pete Lembo, Ball State reached a respectable 6-6 record. Prior coming to Ball State, Lembo had successful runs at both Lehigh and Elon. His combined record at those two schools was 79-36.
Lembo has transformed Ball State's offense into an efficient unit while the defense is still a work in progress. The team shows more confidence now than it ever displayed during the Stan Parrish era.
In Dave Doeren's first year at Northern Illinois, he lead the Huskies to a MAC Conference championship and a win in the GoDaddy.com Bowl against the Arkansas State Red Wolves. After a slow start, NIU won nine straight games while tying the school record with 11 total wins.
In his years as an assistant coach, Doeren helped take teams to eight bowl games and two national championship games as an assistant at Wisconsin, Kansas, Montana, USC and Drake. Doeren's defenses were consistently ranked in the top 25 in the FBS when he was at Wisconsin.
Edge: Northern Illinois
Over the last two seasons, 10 of NIU's 19 games have been decided by a touchdown or less. Already, two games in 2012 have been decided by one point. Northern Illinois is 7-3 in those close games.
Ball State has already come from behind in the fourth quarter to defeat Indiana and South Florida. The Cardinals took a lead late in the fourth quarter against Kent State after trailing 35-26 when the quarter commenced, only to see Kent State win the game with a field goal with six seconds left in the contest.
Although there are differences on how Ball State and Northern Illinois attack offensively, there is not much separating these two in terms of effectiveness. Ball State has scored just one point more than NIU after each team has played five games.
The biggest difference between the Cardinals and the Huskies lies in defensive ability. However, it must be stated that Ball State has faced a strong offensive team in the Clemson Tigers while Northern Illinois played the Tennessee-Martin Skyhawks, an FCS school.
If Ball State cannot contain the running of Jordan Lynch, the Cardinals will be very susceptible to giving up big plays through the pass. NIU has been very effective so far this season completing passes for long yardage when the defense is thinking a run play is being called.
Keith Wenning appeared to have some arm issues against Clemson, but he has been effective in all the other games Ball State has played. Northern Illinois' defense is improved from last year, but the Cardinals should be able to score their fair share of points.
Ball State's big offensive line and its quick passing game should be able to neutralize the Huskies' aggressive pass rush. Last year's battle between these two teams was closely contested, and there will be little difference in this season's version.
Prediction: Northern Illinois 38 Ball State 35