The Huskies beat Ball State to the horn

Richardson’s field goal as time expires earns NIU the Bronze Stalk Trophy for the first time in the Hammock era

Mingda Wu | North Star

COVID-19 freshman running back Jay Ducker is tackled by a Ball State defenseman during NIU’s 30-29 win over the Cardinals Nov. 10 at Huskie Stadium. Ducker had a touchdown run with 2:42 remaining to give NIU their first lead of the game.

DeKALB — Another wild finish for the Huskies ended with a field goal by redshirt sophomore John Richardson as time expired, lifting NIU past the Ball State University Cardinals 30-29 in the trophy game. Bronze Stalk.

With 1:43 remaining, junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi led the Huskies downfield and into the field. Ball State committed a personal foul after a player body slammed redshirt senior running back Clint Ratkovich after officials ruled a dead play with 18 seconds left, giving NIU half the distance until ‘to goal. Two plays later, Richardson converted a 31-yard attempt.

The Huskies trailed by nine points with a pair of NIU penalties nullifying plays that could have turned the tide. Along with two turnovers, head coach Thomas Hammock said he never wanted his team to think negatively.

“We’re not going to complain when things don’t go our way,” Hammock said. “I’ve talked to our kids about the mentality of the next snap. I don’t overreact on the sideline to negativity because the players are watching me and how I react. I want to make sure we respond from the right way… They had a personal foul that put us in late position to win the game, so it all evens out, and I’m glad we were able to get the win.

It wasn’t the final practice that caught Hammock’s eye, but a pass from Lombardi to Ratkovich on a fourth down in the final practice which he says was a defining moment.

“When Rocky made this game, I said, ‘This is a championship moment,'” Hammock said.

After throwing a first-quarter interception, Lombardi finished the game with 264 passing yards and one touchdown pass. Lombardi said the offense could be even better when it limits mistakes.

“It’s about taking advantage of the opportunities you have,” Lombardi said. “It’s about controlling what you can control and playing error-free football. We’re a pretty good attack when we can do that.

When Rocky made this game, I said “This is championship time.”

— Thomas Hammock, NIU Head Coach

NIU took its first lead of the game with just 2:42 remaining on a rushing touchdown by COVID rookie Jay Ducker. Ducker finished the game with 155 rushing yards, often making positive plays on what looked otherwise.

“You just have to trust him,” Ducker said. “You have to trust what the lineman will do for you. It may seem like a loss to you, but you know someone is coming to block it. Its a question of confidence.

Lombardi’s interception, thrown at redshirt Cardinals senior linebacker Brandon Martin, led to a Cardinals field goal. On the next drive, Ball State stripped redshirt first-year wide receiver Trayvon Rudolph of the ball, with Cardinals senior safety Malcolm Lee recovering.

The Cardinals capitalized with a 15-yard touchdown pass from redshirt senior quarterback Drew Plitt to junior wide receiver Jayshon Jackson to make it 10-0 after one quarter.

Both teams’ running game was on point early on. A 24-yard run from Ducker helped set up a two-yard touchdown dive by Ratkovich.

Ball State freshman running back Carson Steele kicked off the Cardinals’ ensuing run with a 49-yard run. Redshirt senior wide receiver Justin Hall scored on the next play with a seven-yard run.

NIU had a touchdown by freshman running back Antario Brown carried away on a leg sweep penalty, forcing Hammock and company to settle for a field goal.

After a stoppage by the Huskies, the NIU offense had a chance to draw with just over a minute left in the half. Lombardi escaped the pressure and found a wide open man in redshirt junior wide receiver Cole Tucker for a 58-yard touchdown.

The Cardinals would have a field goal opportunity before halftime on a 45-yard reception by Ball State sophomore receiver Jalen McGaughy, but the kick was no good. The score was tied 17-17 at halftime.

All the momentum created by NIU before the break was quickly taken away by the Cardinals. After a three-and-out in the opening drive, senior punter Matt Ference had a punt blocked in the back of the end zone for a safety.

The Cardinals extended their lead on the next drive with a two-yard touchdown by Hall. NIU cut the lead with a field goal to make it 26-20, entering the fourth.

As they have done many times this season, NIU have had a long journey that has taken a long time. After a drive that ate more than seven clock minutes, Ducker finished with a 10-yard touchdown run to give NIU its first lead of the game with 2:42 remaining.

Ball State responded quickly with big plays from Hall to put the Cardinals in the shooting zone. Sophomore kicker Jacob Lewis converted a 48-yarder with 1:43 left.

NIU quickly managed to force their way to the Ball State 23-yard line before forcing a Cardinals timeout. Ball State again called timeout before NIU landed another play, drawing a half-range penalty and setting up Richardson’s basket on the horn.

The Huskies’ record increases to 7-3 with a 5-1 record in the Mid-American Conference. Ball State drops to 5-5 overall and 3-3 in the MAC.

NIU heads east next week in a meeting with the University at Buffalo Bulls. Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. CT Wednesday in Buffalo, New York.