For the second time in the last three weeks, the game fell in the hands of a desperation pass from redshirt junior quarterback Riley Neal as time expired. Much like the final play against Western Kentucky, the ball was deflected in the end zone, and Northern Illinois (3-3, 3-0 MAC) brought the Bronze Stalk Trophy home to DeKalb, Illinois, a 10th consecutive year after taking down Ball State (2-4, 1-1 MAC), 24-16.
The Cardinals were forced to settle for a field goal in the red zone for the sixth time this season. A touchdown in that situation Saturday could have been the difference.
“We had our opportunities,” head coach Mike Neu said. “We didn’t simply make enough plays in critical situations to get a win. When you’re playing against a team like that, every opportunity matters, every opportunity counts.”
While the Cardinals did leave points on the field, they could have just as easily scored even less. It took a perfect day from senior kicker Morgan Hagee to keep the game close.
Neu stressed the importance of scoring touchdowns when you reach enemy territory.
“Yes, I’m disappointed those drives didn’t end in touchdowns,” Neu said. “That stings, but we got to get that figured out, keep grinding and know what’s exactly the best answer for us to give our guys a chance to get in the end zone.”
To go along with Hagee’s 26-yard field goal to get the Cardinals on the board, he added a 47- and 51-yarder. He has hit 10 of 13 field goal attempts this year and improved his field goal percentage to 76.9 after his 3 for 3 performance.
The kick from 51 yards out was a career-long for Hagee, topping his previous best of 49 yards.
“I knew that as long as I kept my hips square it was going to go in,” Hagee said. “I didn’t question if I had the leg for it or anything. Luckily, I had the wind behind me, but I feel even if there was no wind I would have had it.”
Special teams play has improved for the Cardinals this season. Last year, Hagee only connected with just over half of his field goal attempts. At the halfway point of 2018, he has already made more field goals than all of last year, and his field goal ratio has increased by more than 20 percent.
“He’s definitely trustworthy. We trust him with everything we have,” sophomore receiver Justin Hall said. “We know he’s going to come through for us when we can’t come through for him… Seeing him with that swag, that was awesome. Morgan practices so hard and trains so hard and he just goes out there and does his thing, so we were proud of him.”
Despite the improvements on special teams, Neu said he’d rather reserve the field goal unit for extra points.
The Cardinals continued their aggressive play calling from a week ago, but NIU’s defense held Ball State to one touchdown. Neu said he was aware it would be tough to move the ball against the Huskies.
“I’m proud of the fight. I don’t think we need to find effort. All that stuff is there,” Neu said. “Our guys are selling out, leaving everything they’ve got on that football field. When you’re playing against a good team like that, when you have opportunities, you simply have to make those plays.”
The Cardinals will have their first road MAC contest Saturday, Oct. 13 when they travel outside the state of Indiana for the first time in 2018 to play Central Michigan.
Contact Zach Piatt with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @zachpiatt13.