The football team looks to reclaim the Bronze Stalk Wednesday when they travel to Muncie, Indiana to face the Ball State University Cardinals.
NIU retained the trophy from 2009 until last season when the Huskies lost 27-20 at home. The loss still lingers in the minds of players like redshirt junior defensive lineman Michael Kennedy, who said the loss last season was personal.
“It’s personal,” Kennedy said. “The players take it real personal and we want that trophy back. We’re going into this week with an intense mindset.”
Head Coach Thomas Hammock, himself having never lost to Ball State during his time as a player for NIU, said winning back the Bronze Stalk would be a huge boost of confidence for his team after an 0-2 start.
“It gives our players something,” Hammock said. “They’re fighting for something. This game means something to them and we want them to start reaping the benefits of their hard work.”
The road trip will be the first of the season for the Huskies, now with added obstacles of dealing with COVID-19. Hammock said precautions are being taken to minimize contact between players and others.
“We’ve obviously taken a lot of precautions,” Hammock said. “We’ve obviously adjusted our schedule, this being the first time we’ve had this type of schedule. We’ve taken every precaution to keep the COVID numbers down so we have the opportunity to play.”
Hammock said the team will take extra buses and avoid sit-down meals in order to mitigate the spread. Players will be put in cohorts based on testing results and roommates.
NIU comes off back-to-back losses to start their season, losing 40-10 last week to the Central Michigan University Chippewas in a poor showing for the Huskies offense. Senior redshirt quarterback Ross Bowers threw for only 139 yards against CMU and was pulled in the fourth quarter for the second week in a row.
Hammock fielded several questions about his quarterback situation after the game and at the team’s weekly news conference Friday. Hammock said the offense as a whole needs to play better in a year they’re trying to give everybody the opportunity to play.
“The quarterback is the one that runs the show offensively,” Hammock said. “I think we have to play better around him, but obviously there are some guys we want to give an opportunity to as well. I think Dustin Fletcher is continuing to get better and we’ll try to incorporate him more as we move forward.”
The offense is now a key focus for Hammock heading to Muncie to face a 1-1 Cardinals team. NIU will once again have to work to contain a tough running back in senior Caleb Huntely, who’s already amassed 334 yards on 55 carries.
“Our offense has to move the ball down the field,” Hammock said. “I think it starts there. What a great offense [Ball State] has. They have great players who know how to stretch the field vertically and horizontally. For us defensively, we have to defend the whole field.”
The Huskies will play Wednesday without redshirt senior linebacker Lance DeVeaux Jr. and redshirt junior Jordan Cole. DeVeaux suffered an undisclosed injury in practice prior to the Central Michigan game and his return is unknown. Cole suffered a broken leg in the CMU game and is having surgery this week, Hammock said.
Kennedy, who recorded a strip sack against CMU, said Cole had been bringing the most ‘juice’ to practices before his injury and now it was time for someone else to step up.
“[Cole] had the most juice throughout the fall,” Kennedy said. “Everybody is going to have to bring the juice now.”
First-year Daveren Rayner started in place of DeVeaux last week and finished with seven tackles. Rayner starts again this week with junior linebacker Woodly Appolon as his backup.
Kickoff for the game is scheduled for 6 p.m. local time, being broadcast on ESPN News.