Ball St.-N. Illinois Preview
While Northern Illinois is in the midst of what could be a second straight special season, it's not the only undefeated team in the Mid-American Conference's West Division.
Riding two of the nation's longest winning streaks, the No. 20 Huskies can remain unbeaten by preventing visiting Ball State from clinching the division title with their 12th consecutive league victory Wednesday night.
A BCS buster last season, Northern Illinois (9-0, 5-0) has won 24 consecutive home games and 22 straight overall against conference opponents - the longest active such streaks in the FBS. The two-time reigning MAC champion Huskies are 15th in the BCS rankings and have 2012 Heisman vote-getting quarterback Jordan Lynch leading an offense that ranks among the top 10 in the FBS averaging 44.2 points, 312.7 rushing yards and 545.4 total yards per game.
However, it's Ball State (9-1, 6-0) that can secure the division title for the first time since 2008 with its eighth consecutive overall victory Wednesday. The Cardinals conclude the regular season at home against winless Miami of Ohio on Nov. 29.
NIU, meanwhile, travels to third-place Toledo - which suffered its lone league loss to Ball State - next week before closing with Western Michigan at home.
"It's going to be a big challenge for us," Huskies coach Rod Carey said. "We've got a fine football team coming in here. They have a taste for winning right now."
Paced by senior quarterback Keith Wenning and receiver Willie Snead, Ball State ranks in the top 20 in the FBS averaging 39.9 points and 323.0 passing yards per game. The Cardinals, who also lead the FBS with 15 fumble recoveries, last lost 34-27 at North Texas on Sept. 14.
"Playing in a meaningful game in November, this is the kind of opportunity you want your kids to have," Ball State coach Pete Lembo said. "It's not going to be easy, but for us it's good to be relevant."
Wenning, the school's career leader in touchdowns (84), passing yards (10,418), completions (950) and attempts (1,516), has completed 69.3 percent of his passes and thrown 12 of his 27 TDs without an interception in the last three games. He went 20 of 29 for 299 yards and four touchdowns in a 44-24 win over Central Michigan last Wednesday.
Snead caught nine of those passes for 118 yards and two scores. The junior ranks third in the FBS with a career-high 1,175 receiving yards and 12 TDs on 74 catches.
Though NIU has averaged 40.3 points during a four-game winning streak over Ball State, the last two in DeKalb, Ill., have been decided by nine points.
Wenning attempted a career-high 71 passes and threw for 434 yards but with one TD and two INT's in last year's 35-23 home loss to the Huskies. The Cardinals led 23-14 in the third quarter before NIU scored the final 21 points.
Snead had six receptions for 87 yards and a touchdown in that game after he was held to two for 22 yards in a 41-38 loss at NIU in 2011.
Lynch ran for 207 yards with three scores and threw for 195 with a TD in last year's meeting. Leading all FBS quarterbacks with 1,150 rushing yards and averaging 6.6 per carry, Lynch ran for 119 on 17 attempts and four TDs in a 63-19 rout of Massachusetts on Nov. 2.
Despite the challenge that awaits the Huskies on Wednesday, Lynch has plenty of confidence in his teammates as they try to match the 1963 team's 10-0 record.
"I think our best is yet to come with this team," he said. "I don't think we have to do anything out of the ordinary. We just have to be ourselves going into this game, and we have a lot of talent, we just need to focus on this next game without getting too far ahead."
Ball State, which last won 12 consecutive conference games over the 1977 and 1978 seasons, snapped a 13-game slide against Top 25 opponents with last year's 34-27 win at then-No. 23 Toledo.