NEWS

Ball State vs. Northern Illinois football: 3 things to watch for in battle for Bronze Stalk Trophy


6 minute read

2018/10/05
Ryan O’Gara 
Muncie Star Press

Ball State's leading tackler was "too small, too slow" to play at Northern Illinois. It's a bit personal this week for Jacob White.

MUNCIE, Ind. — Jacob White took an official visit to Northern Illinois while he was starring at Hinsdale Central High School. He wanted to play for the Huskies, who have become the MAC's top football program and were located less than an hour from his high school in Illinois.

The redshirt junior linebacker is now Ball State's leading tackler for the second straight season, but he said he was overlooked by NIU's staff, which wanted him to play fullback instead of linebacker.

"I didn't really want to do that, so it didn't work out," White said at practice this week. "Ball State was the way better place for me, so I'm glad I'm here.

"They told me I was too small, too slow," he added. "So I'm looking forward to this game."

White had to be helped off the field after suffering a back injury in last Saturday's win over Kent State and did not return to the game. He still led the Cardinals with 10 tackles, and head coach Mike Neu said this week, "He's a tough dude, so for him to come out of the game, you know they must've got him in the right spot."

But White practiced all week, getting in a limited session Tuesday and was a full participant on Wednesday. He is looking forward to this game, no doubt. It's a game against a program that Ball State aspires to be in terms of sustained success, and it's personal for White given how he feels like he was overlooked in high school.

"Obviously it's about the team," White said, "but for me, it adds some extra fuel to the fire."

Here are three things to watch for when Ball State (2-3, 1-0) and Northern Illinois (2-3, 2-0) meet at 3 p.m. Saturday (ESPN3) at Scheumann Stadium:
1. Is this a rivalry? It's been one-sided lately

The first time Ball State and Northern Illinois played was 1941. They tied 6-6. And in the 44 meetings since then, the Huskies hold a 23-20 advantage (there was also a tie in 1971). This surely was a rivalry at one time (thus the Bronze Stalk Trophy) and maybe it still is, but it's been very one-sided over the past decade.

Ball State hasn't won the Bronze Stalk Trophy since its initial season in 2008. Only one of the last six meetings has been a one-possession game (Neu's first season in 2016, Ball State lost 31-24).

"It's been too long since Ball State last won that," Neu said. "We're the only ones who can do anything about that, the guys on the field playing, they know preparation and having consistency through the week, not just on Saturday."

2. Sutton Smith, pass-rushing extraordinaire

Northern Illinois boasts one of the top players in the conference in edge rusher Sutton Smith, who led the nation in sacks in 2017 with 14 and was a consensus All-American.

The matchup to watch on Saturday will be how Ball State's offensive line, which is down two starters, handles him.

"Anybody (Smith) plays against, he plays with just such a high motor," Neu said. "He flies around the football field, and you have to give him credit for that. People have probably knocked him his whole life for not having the ideal size, but he makes up for it with will and effort."

The onus will fall on left tackle Andrew Poenitsch (who started the season at center) and right tackle Danny Pinter (who played tight end last season), as Smith lines up on both sides.

Smith is indeed a bit undersized at 6-foot-1 and 237 pounds, but Ball State is readying for "pure speed," as Poenitsch put it. Michael Robinson has been playing Smith on Ball State's scout team this week during practice.

"(Smith) is just going to hit us with speed every time," Poenitsch said. "We need to make sure we get good sets and get our hands inside, and we'll be good."

It's worth wondering in general how this offensive line will hold up. The Huskies were fifth nationally in sacks last year and are tied for 11th this season with 16. And who can forget last year's game between Ball State and Northern Illinois when the Huskies racked up 18 tackles for loss?

It's a big ask of Poenitsch, who has started the last two games at left tackle after Kaleb Slaven sustained a foot injury. The same for Pinter, who is in his first year at tackle. But Neu lauded how Poenitsch has handled going from the Rimington Trophy Watch List (an award given to the nation's best center) to trying to slow down speed rushers.

"He's been awesome. He's very athletic," Neu said. "I can't give Coach (Kyle) DeVan a ton of credit for taking guys and moving them out of their primary position because it's the best thing for the team. Those guys have bought into it, and Andrew has bought into that. He's done a very good job through two games."

3. Can Ball State take the next step?

This would undoubtedly be the best win of the Neu Era, and the best win for this program in some time. Ball State hasn't made a bowl game in its last four seasons, and a win Saturday would put it back on track to do just that. The Cardinals are in the bottom tier of the MAC right now, with just two wins in the last two-plus seasons. What better way to break out of that than to knock off the conference's best?

"Northern Illinois is a good football program. They've done a good job of having success and being able to sustain that," Neu said. "I'd say every program is looking to accomplish those goals, because when you do have success, you want to be able to sustain that. Ball State has had some successful years in the past, but we haven't been able to sustain that."

The timing couldn't be better. The Cardinals are playing at home, they are relatively healthy and they are brimming full of confidence after a 52-24 beatdown of Kent State.

"At this point in the season, every team knows what the other does; it just comes down to execution and having that game plan," White said. "So we just have to do it."

Ryan O’Gara covers Ball State and East Central Indiana high schools at the Star Press. Contact him at (765) 213-5829, rogara@muncie.gannett.com or @RyanOGara.


© 2018 www.thestarpress.com. All rights reserved.

https://www.thestarpress.com/story/sports/college/ball-state/2018/10/05/ball-state-northern-illinois-football-sutton-smith-mike-neu-bronze-stalk-trophy/1519969002/
SEARCH FOR RELATED NEWS

BACK to INDEX

SUBMIT NEWS