DeKALB, Ill. – With just over two minutes to play Thursday night, the Ball State University offense ran on to the field at Northern Illinois University needing a touchdown to win the game.
But the Cardinals were unable to pick up a first down on four plays and lost to the Huskies 26-20. It was the sixth time this season Ball State has lost by a touchdown or less.
"We said at halftime we're not playing another game and losing by less than a touchdown in the fourth quarter," quarterback Tanner Justice said. "And that ended up happening. It's just frustrating because it's so close."
Ball State started the quarter down by 13, but fought back into the game with a 29-yard touchdown pass from Justice to Dan Ifft. Justice was hit as he threw, but was able to place the ball in stride for Ifft.
The Cardinals entered halftime down only three points, but were shut down in the third quarter when they did not gain any yards. Coach Stan Parrish said that was a product of youth and inexperience with the wildcat formation.
"We're playing a lot of this wildcat offense and we're paying a little price for it," Parrish said. "There are some glitches with it."
The third quarter offensive failure coincided with the return of Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish. He entered the game at the start of the second half for the first time in a month. The sophomore completed all nine of his passes for 60 yards and a touchdown.
The Cardinals did do a good job containing the Huskies' potent rushing attack. The hosts were limited to 159 yards on the ground and their leading rusher was wide receiver Nate Palmer with 69 yards.
"Our main goal coming into this game was making sure they can't run the ball," linebacker Davyd Jones said. "I thought we did a really good job of stopping the run. Our defense came out ready to play."
However, it seemed that the dual threat of Harnish was something Ball State struggled to adjust to. Northern Illinois scored 10 points in the third quarter to open a two-possession lead.
Jones said Harnish didn't force Ball State to change their game plan.
"There was no difference," he said. "He could throw a little better than [DeMarcus Grady], but overall he didn't make a difference on the game."
Harnish was supposed to be a game-time decision for Huskies' coach Jerry Kill, but Parrish thought he would play anyway.
"Jerry is sneaky," Parrish said. "I read between the lines. I knew he would play because he's got to get him ready. They've got Ohio [University] and Central [Michigan University]."
The Cardinals were also able to effectively move the ball against the Mid-American Conference's top rushing defense. Ball State rushed for 167 yards and Cory Sykes led the team with 75 yards on 11 carries.
Ball State opened the game with a four-play, 76-yard drive that Eric Williams finished with a five-yard touchdown run. MiQuale Lewis highlighted the possession with a 52-yard run. Lewis finished the night with 68 yards on nine carries.