MUNCIE — The Ball State football team was excited about the opportunity at hand Saturday against a team that has been the class of the Mid-American Conference in recent years.
Northern Illinois (1-4, 1-0 MAC) came into Scheumann Stadium for this year’s meeting winless through four games, but Ball State (3-2, 0-1) knew this was not your average 0-4 team. NIU, winners of the past six MAC West Division championships, took advantage of a fresh start with the beginning of conference play.
Ball State had its chances in the 31-24 loss. But the Cardinals allowed too many big plays and couldn’t come up with enough of their own as the Huskies maintained possession of the Bronze Stalk rivalry trophy.
“It’s disappointing to lose the MAC opener at home, especially when it’s a big game for our program for where we’re at right now,” Ball State coach Mike Neu said. “We were prepared and ready to go. Unfortunately, we just didn’t get it done. Give the credit to Northern Illinois, though. They were the more physical team.”
For his part, Ball State running back James Gilbert was physical, as well. The sophomore ran for 119 yards on 22 carries and scored all three of the Cardinals’ touchdowns. His final touchdown pulled Ball State even at 24-24 early in the fourth quarter.
But NIU struck quickly a little more than one minute later when quarterback Anthony Maddie hit Kenny Golladay for a 22-yard score as the Huskies went back on top 31-24.
Northern Illinois piled up 653 yards, including 355 on the ground, to help overcome a 3-1 deficit in the turnover battle. The Huskies moved with a fast tempo throughout the afternoon. Their longest scoring drive was barely three minutes.
Maddie threw for 298 yards and two touchdowns, both to Golladay who hauled in 13 passes for 184 yards. On the ground, Maddie (160 yards) and Joel Bouagnon (153) accounted for 313 yards with each scoring a touchdown. Maddie’s came on a 75-yard scamper.
“We knew they had a two-headed monster at running back, and their quarterback is a good runner, as well,” Neu said. “It was going to be an important game for us from a tackling standpoint, and we missed some tackles. Obviously, that can’t happen and we have to get it fixed.”
The touchdowns by each team early in the fourth quarter were the only scores of the second half. Ball State sophomore cornerback Marc Walton intercepted a pass in the end zone to stave off another NIU scoring opportunity in the third quarter.
Ball State moved the ball into Huskie territory on the ensuing possession before turning it over on downs. The Cardinals were able to cash in on the other two NIU turnovers, both fumbles near midfield, with Gilbert touchdowns.
Still trailing by one score in the game’s closing minutes, Ball State pinned Northern Illinois inside the 10-yard line on its final two possessions with Kyle Schmidt punts.
The BSU defense forced a three-and-out the first time to get the ball back, but the Cardinals were unable to move it on offense. The second time, Northern Illinois managed to pick up three first downs and run out the clock.
“These games are going to be a battle,” Neu said. “They will be a battle for four quarters, so when an opportunity presents itself, we have to make the plays if we want to have the opportunity to win.”
Ball State sophomore quarterback Riley Neal finished the day with 276 yards on 23-of-40 passing. His top two targets were KeVonn Mabon with six catches for 99 yards and Damon Hazelton Jr. with six grabs for 90 yards.
The Cardinals will head back to the road next week, visiting Central Michigan for another MAC West Division game Saturday at 3:30 p.m. on the American Sports Network and ESPN3.
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