Huskies beat Ball State at the horn

Richardson field-goal as time expires lifts NIU to first Bronze Stalk Trophy victory in Hammock era


Mingda Wu | Northern Star

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

By James Krause

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

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

The Huskies trailed by nine points with a pair of NIU penalties negating plays that may have flipped the script. Along with a pair of 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 talked to our kids about the next snap mentality. I don’t overreact on the sideline to negativity because the players are watching me and how I respond. I want to make sure we respond the right way…They had a personal foul that put us in a position late 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 drive that caught the attention of Hammock, but a flip pass from Lombardi to Ratkovich on a fourth-down the previous drive that he said was a defining moment.

“When Rocky made that play, I said ‘That’s a championship moment,’” Hammock said.

After throwing an interception in the first quarter, Lombardi finished the game with 264 passing yards and a touchdown pass. Lombardi said the offense could perform even better when they limit mistakes.

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

When Rocky made that play, I said ‘That’s a championship moment.’”

— NIU head coach Thomas Hammock

NIU gained their first lead of the game with just 2:42 remaining on a rushing touchdown by COVID-freshman Jay Ducker. Ducker finished the game with 155 rushing yards, frequently making positive plays out of what looked to be otherwise.

“You just have to trust it,” Ducker said. “You have to trust what the lineman will do for you. It may look to you like it’s a loss, but you know someone’s coming to block him. It’s about trust.” 

Lombardi’s interception, thrown to Cardinals redshirt senior linebacker Brandon Martin, led to a Cardinals field goal. On the next drive, Ball State stripped redshirt freshman 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.

The running game of both squads was on point in the early going. A 24-yard rush by Ducker helped set up a two-yard touchdown dive by Ratkovich.

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

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

After a stop by the Huskies, the NIU offense was given a chance to tie with a little over a minute remaining in the half. Lombardi scrambled away from pressure and found a man wide open, redshirt junior wide receiver Cole Tucker for a 58-yard touchdown.

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

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

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

As they have many times this season, NIU went on a long drive that consumed plenty of time. After a drive that ate over seven minutes of clock, Ducker finished with a 10-yard touchdown run to give NIU their first lead of the game with 2:42 remaining.

Ball State quickly responded with big plays by Hall to put the Cardinals into field goal range. Sophomore kicker Jacob Lewis converted a 48-yard with 1:43 remaining.

NIU quickly managed to work their way to the Ball State 23-yard line before forcing a Cardinals timeout. Ball State called timeout again before NIU got off another play, drawing a half-distance penalty and setting up the Richardson field goal at the horn.

The Huskies record moves 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.