Davis likely to start again; Harris may play

By Nathan Lindquist

Perhaps NIU football coach Joe Novak should be thanking the schedule makers right about now.

For the second straight week, his injury-depleted backfield runs into a struggling squad that gives up a ton of points and even more rush yards. And this time, the struggling squad has to play at his house.

But when NIU (4-3 overall, 3-1 MAC) hosts Ball State (1-6, 1-3) Saturday, Novak will not be taking the Cardinals for granted.

“Their record is a little deceiving,” the 10th-year coach said. “They got beat by three teams in the top 10 in the country. Their quarterback, [Joey] Lynch, gave us fits last year. They got some speed so they can make plays defensively.”

Novak’s caution is not unfounded. Memories of last year’s game in Muncie are still fresh in his mind. The Cardinals came from 11 points down in the fourth quarter to force overtime, only to have NIU junior running back Garrett Wolfe score a nine-yard touchdown run.

On the other end of the spectrum, the schedule makers have not been kind to Ball State this year. They opened their season with a 56-0 loss at Iowa, followed by blowouts at the hands of Auburn and Boston College. Coupled with the multi-game suspensions of 13 players at the beginning of the season, Ball State has only recently solidified their lineup.

While Novak retains prudence, probable starter Adrian Davis must be licking his chops right now.

In his first career start Saturday, the NIU senior running back bludgeoned Kent State with a career-high 252 yards and three touchdowns. This week, he will be facing another defensively-challenged squad that allows 256 rushing yards per game – worst in the MAC.

“It was a big confidence boost,” Davis said about the Kent State game. “I feel like I can go out there and play with anybody. Running behind a great line and having great blocking receivers, I feel like I can do everything Garrett and A.J. [Harris] can do.”

While Wolfe will continue to miss time with a knee sprain, senior running back A.J. Harris may return to the starting lineup of the MAC’s top running game after sitting out last week with a shoulder injury.

Thanks in part to the top-flight offensive teams they have faced this year, Ball State’s defense is the worst in the MAC. The Cardinals are dead last in scoring allowed (46.6 points per game), rushing defense (256.7 yards per game) and total defense (502.7 yards per game).

On the other side of the field, NIU’s once struggling defense has stiffened up. The Huskies have only allowed 11 points and 368 total yards in the last two games after surrendering more than 400 yards three times earlier this season.

Junior middle linebacker Keenan Blalark credits a more comfortable, cohesive defensive mentality.

“The young guys are getting more comfortable and for me, everything is getting more familiar,” Blalark said. “Our confidence has risen so much since the Michigan game. We’re out there making plays instead of just filling gaps. The mentality has changed.”

Part of the change is Blalark himself. In his first year as a starter, the junior is second on the team with 37 tackles and one interception. He leads the young and inexperienced linebacker unit with his intense style of play.

“We got to go out there and play fast and play hard,” Blalark said. “Coaches have some new schemes we’re going to put in like every day. After we get the scheme down, it’s all about the mental part. We got to go out there and play like wild men.”