No matter who its playing, Ball State has the same goal every week – establishing the run game. 

This week, however, Ball State (2-7, 0-5 MAC) plays Northern Illinois (6-3, 4-1 MAC), a team that has the best rushing and total defense in the Mid-American Conference.

“No secret, we’ve got to be able to run the ball,” head coach Mike Neu said. “Credit to them because they’re playing good defense right now, but we’ve got to rise up to the challenge.”

Team statistics

Ball State

Total offense – 338.8 YPG

Points – 18.6 PG

Total defense – 420.9 YPG

Points against – 39.7 PG

Northern Illinois

Total offense – 400.2 YPG

Points – 26.7 PG

Total defense – 331.6 YPG*

Points against – 19 PG*

*Denotes best ranking in Mid-American Conference

Northern Illinois’ run defense has limited its opponents to just 112 yards per game and seven scores on the ground this year. The Huskies defensive unit has only allowed 15 offensive touchdowns overall, playing against teams like Boston College (5-4) and then-ranked No. 19 San Diego State (8-2).

With junior running back James Gilbert and quarterback Riley Neal officially ruled out for the season, Ball State will once again rely heavily on its young running back duo consisting of freshman Caleb Huntley and sophomore Malik Dunner. 

Last week against Eastern Michigan, however, Ball State showed a facet of its game that wasn’t seen in the previous five games – the ability to throw the ball downfield.

Part of that comes in the confidence the coaches have put in redshirt freshman quarterback Drew Plitt and the other part is the Cardinals receivers increasing ability to get open down field.

“Not only can [Plitt] throw, but you’ve also got guys like Khalil [Newton], now starting to get in the swing of things.” Neu said. “A guy like Khail has come a long way to kind of know what he’s doing from a mental standpoint.”

Newton, a freshman out of Lithonia, Georgia, caught his first pass of the season on a 25-yard touchdown pass across the middle of the field, where he ran untouched in the end zone past the Eastern Michigan secondary. 

Paired with options like Justin Hall, Riley Miller, Antwan Davis and Nolan Givan, Plitt has options down the field and he has proven he can connect, throwing for 266 yards and two touchdowns in two games. 

For an offensive line that’s given up 24 sacks going against a Northern Illinois team that has had 26 sacks this season, giving Plitt time to throw remains a concern moving forward. 

Ball State’s offensive line lost redshirt freshman, left tackle Kaleb Slaven last week after he broke his left foot while redshirt sophomore center Andrew Poenitsch remains out with a neck injury.

“You always expect that there’s going to be some sort of injuries,” redshirt senior Vinnie Palazeti said. “O-line is a physical position, so you’ve got a lot of guys getting reps behind them in the spring and fall camp. We’ve got guys who have been ready to come in when we really needed them.”

Palazeti played left tackle last week while redshirt junior Kadin Booker played right tackle. Zac Ricketts, Chris Beech and Curtis Blackwell, all underclassmen, round out the remainder of the young offensive line.

While Palazeti said the amount of injuries have been tough, he’s confident in Ball State’s “next man up” mentality.

Northern Illinois is currently on an eight-game win streak in the battle for the Bronze Stalk Trophy, with Ball State’s last win coming by way of a 45-14 win in 2008.

Contact football reporter Robby General with comments at rjgeneral@bsu.edu or on Twitter @rgeneraljr