This weeks football game is, without a doubt, one of the most important games in recent school history. A win against Northern Illinois Saturday will secure a piece of the Mid-American Conference West division title and will earn the right to host the MAC championship game.
With a Mid-American Conference record of 7-1, 1996 was the last year the Ball State football team held the crown of the MAC champion.
After the MAC split in 1997 with the Cardinals falling into the West, Ball State tied for third in 1997, was sixth in 1998 and 1999 and tied for third last season.
Now with an overall record of 4-5, 3-2 in the MAC, Ball State controls its own destiny.
Sitting atop the MAC West with a divisional record of 3-0, if Ball State defeats Northern Illinois Saturday it will be crowned MAC West champs.
Winning Saturday however will only clinch a tie in the division whereas a win at both Northern Illinois and at Western Michigan next Saturday would win the title outright for the Cards.
If Northern Illinois has anything to say about it, things wont be that easy for Ball State come game time in DeKalb, Ill.
Last year when the two teams faced off in Muncie, Northern Illinois won the game with a score of 43-14. That game also served as the final loss in the Cardinal's 21-game losing streak. In that contest Ball State only gained 66 yards rushing on 42 attempts.
Defensive End Rachman Crable said that last year's loss to the Huskies will serve as a motivator for the Cards Saturday.
"We will be a real motivated team come Saturday," Crable said. "We're not a fluke. We have to get the job done.
"Northern came in here and stomped us pretty good last year and stomped us two years ago up there. Two years of that in a row and you get tired of it," he said. "We are going to go out there and prove a point, we aren't a door mat."
In order to prove that point, according to Cardinal coach Bill Lynch, the running game will have to be in full effect for Ball State Saturday.
Lynch and his coaching staff will turn to tailback Marcus Merriweather when it comes to running the ball. The junior is already posting near-record breaking numbers for the season.
Merriweather marked his second consecutive season with 1000 yards rushing against Kent State Saturday and is approaching the Ball State record books in two other categories.
Merriweather also had his 10th career 100-yard rushing game against Kent State, which ties for fourth-best on the most 100-yard games in a career list. Second place on that list is held by Bernie Parmalee who has only one more than Merriweather with 11.
Merriweather is also currently tied for second-best single-season mark with six 100-yard games. The record is seven set by Tony Nibbs who played from 1992-1994.
On top of all of that, Merriweather is ranked No. 2 in the MAC and No. 14 in the nation in rushing.
"It shows I'm working hard and playing well," Merriweather said. "To me though it's not really a big deal. If I just go out an play well then good things should turn up."
According to Lynch, it will take a little more than just a sound running game to defeat Northern Illinois.
"We will also have to some balance," Lynch said as he commented that the throwing game will need to turn around for Ball State.
"Offensively we have been on a roller coaster," Lynch said. "We have been consistent running the ball but we are going to have to throw the football well Saturday to have success."
When it comes to throwing the ball, the Cardinals have struggled in the way of interceptions. In his past four contests alone, quarterback Talmadge Hill has thrown eight interceptions.
For Lynch, despite most beliefs, it's not always the quarterback's fault when it comes to interceptions.
"The quarterback is always going to take the heat," Lynch said. "There are times when maybe the receiver didn't get open, the protection wasn't great or the vision isn't good. "
Despite who's to blame for the interceptions, Lynch says the number of turnovers must be cut down.
"You only get so many possessions with the ball so you just can't turn it over to them," Lynch said. "Unless you are making up for it with a bunch of huge plays, it goes without saying that, if we expect to have success Saturday, we can't turn the ball over."
DEFENSE HOPING TO REBOUND
On the other side of the ball, Ball State's defense will be looking to rebound after allowing Kent State 309 yards rushing Saturday.
"We were playing such great defense," Lynch said. "We had some periods against Central Michigan where they were able to move the ball and the same thing happens Saturday (against Kent State).
"If we expect to win the game, we have to get back to playing a good defense. We can't give up big plays. Those are the things that kill us."
Despite the performances of the Cardinal defense in Ball State's past two games, Crable believes he and his defense will be back to normal when it comes to controlling the oppositions offense.
"We have learned some things the past couple of games with other teams trying to exploit (our defense)," Crable said.
"Everyone is going to have to play hard and fly to the ball on defense," Crable said.
BIG GAME JITTERS, EMOTION
Saturday's game will obviously be the biggest game of the season. With so much riding on one game, one would assume there would be a lot of nerves amongst the Cardinals.
Lynch feels differently about the matter.
"I think there is some of that when you are 0-4 too," he said. "I think there is some of that when you are 1-4 and you are playing the No. 25 team in the country.
"It hasn't been the same kind of game but I think we have enough experience in the older guys on the team."
"I'm sure when teams line up for the Super Bowl there are jitters," Lynch said, "there are always those.
"Most of these kids have played in a big football game, whether it was a high school game or a college game," the Cardinal coach said. "They realize that once they take that first hit in a game, the game becomes just like any other game."
With a little amount of jitters, Lynch does expect his team will be fired up and ready to play hard Saturday. The key according to Lynch is to control and utilize that fire.
"I don't think there will be any question about the emotion or intensity," Lynch said. "The key when you get in a game like this is that you have to play well. It's not who is the most fired up, it's who can control that emotion, enthusiasm and intensity, and play well."