Facing a 17-3 deficit at halftime, Ball State Football (2-3, 1-0 MAC) entered the locker room after 30 minutes of play Saturday not feeling disappointed, but rather motivated.
“I could already hear some of our upperclass players talking to our teammates saying, ‘We didn’t come up here to do that. That’s not our best football,’” head coach Mike Neu said. “I piggybacked off of that.”
The motivation seemed to pay off as Neu’s Cardinals rallied for 24 unanswered points in the second half en route to a 27-20 comeback win over defending Mid-American Conference Champion Northern Illinois (1-4, 0-1 MAC). The win was the Cardinals’ first over the Huskies since 2008, and Ball State’s second time capturing the Bronze Stalk Trophy since its inception in the same year.
The trophy was created to pay homage to the rural environments surrounding both Northern Illinois and Ball State. Neu said the win was a huge statement for Ball State and a reflection of all the progress made over the years.
“I’ve been through a lot of growing pains here,” Neu said. “Things have been tough, but we’ve worked extremely hard to develop young men on and off the field over the last few years. To look at some of those guys who I came in here with and to see the tears running down their face was certainly special.”
Junior running back Caleb Huntley played an important role in Saturday’s victory, leading the Cardinals with 157 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
“It’s incredible,” Huntley said. “[The win] showed the determination we have to fight back even though we had a long road to get here.”
The Cardinals ended the first quarter down 14-0 after two Northern Illinois touchdowns from Tre Harbison. The quarter also included a milestone for redshirt senior linebacker Jacob White as he recorded his 200th career tackle.
White ended Saturday with six tackles, four fewer than senior safety Ray Wilborn, who led the way with 10.
“I just tried to be aggressive and let my team feed off of me,” Wilborn said. “It was a great win, and we’re definitely going to look at it as a positive.”
Ball State opened its run of 24 unanswered points with a 25-yard field goal from senior kicker Ryan Rimmler at the 6:45 mark in the third quarter. Seconds later, junior linebacker Christian Albright forced a fumble by Harbison, giving the Cardinals possession.
The Cardinals subsequently scored their first touchdown on a 3-yard run by Huntley, followed by a two-point conversion from redshirt junior quarterback Drew Plitt to junior wide receiver Justin Hall. A 42-yard kick from Rimmler tied the game 17-17 to end the third quarter.
“When we tied it back up, that’s when we knew it was going to be a game,” Huntley said. “It was a big, physical fight.”
Ball State never looked back in the fourth as Huntley gave the Cardinals a 24-17 lead 26 seconds into the final quarter. The Cardinals closed out their scoring with a 22-yard field goal from Rimmler — his fourth of the game.
As heavy rain fell throughout the second half, Neu said the conditions might have given the team a slight advantage.
“The weather was challenging, but our guys made the best of a tough situation from a weather standpoint,” Neu said. “We just fought through, and special teams can’t get enough credit. We took advantage of field position, and our guys did a good job.”
Ball State will be back in action at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12 at Eastern Michigan.