Whenever Ball State Football (2-1 MAC) needed something to go its way defensively, it didn’t — until it did.
Ball State allowed Northern Illinois (0-3 MAC) to score a touchdown on the first drive of the game and again early in the second quarter. The defense showed flashes but couldn’t quite muster enough stops to force a punt.
The Cardinals were down 14-7 to the Huskies with 8:17 left in the first half. The defense took the field and forced Northern Illinois to pass on 3rd and 13. Just when it seemed something was going in their favor, the Huskies made a 12-yard completion to make it 4th and 1.
Northern Illinois went for it on Ball State’s 49-yard line and converted on a 1-yard rush. After the Huskies were on track to extend their lead, something finally went in the Cardinal’s favor.
Junior cornerback Amechi Uzodinma II picked the ball off and took it to the endzone to tie the game at 14 points. Uzodinma made a play on a receiver who he said wasn’t even his assignment, caught the ball and just ran.
“When the ball was coming to me, it almost felt like slow motion,” Uzodinma said. “Obviously you want to secure the catch and after that, I saw a lineman out of my rearview, cut back and ran for my life.”
It took that one defensive play for the tides to turn in Ball State’s 31-25 win over the Huskies, and it set the tone for the rest of the game.
“The defense just kept battling and battling,” head coach Mike Neu said. “Then we got the pick-six and you could just feel the momentum shift there on the sideline. You could just feel the added punch that we needed to get ourselves going.”
The rest of the Cardinals’ defense was led by senior safety Bryce Cosby with 14 tackles, redshirt inside linebacker Jaylin Thomas with 13 and redshirt inside linebacker Brandon Martin with 11.
“You are talking about three tremendous leaders,” Neu said. “They are three tremendous young men who have given a lot to this program. They have stuck by each other’s side during tough times in the past here.”
It was a different story the first time the trio played against the Huskies in 2017. Northern Illinois walked away with a 63-17 victory, and it left a stain for the three of them, and Neu is proud of how far they have come to help pull off the win this time around.
“It was an awful night for all of us,” Neu said. “That left some deep scars. Those guys just kept working hard and stayed positive and stuck by each other’s side. They knew they saw something in each other, so their leadership has meant a lot to this program.”
Cosby — who said that he takes the Bronze Stalk rivalry personal — remembers as clear as day the taste the first loss left in his mouth. He didn’t want to relive it, and it gave him and the rest of the veterans on defense inspiration to win it these last two seasons.
“It was hard as a freshman,” Cosby said. “I came in from a winning program. I remember that game against NIU like it was yesterday. It was freezing, and we got beat 63-17. It was a true gut-punch getting on the bus after that.”
Three of those veterans, who had that sour taste back in 2017, led the charge in this game. Martin, Thomas and Cosby all came up together in the program and have formed a brotherhood which has helped their performance on the field.
“Brandon Martin and [Jaylin] Thomas are two dogs,” Cosby said. “I feed off of their energy and try to do my best so they can feed off of me. We have a tight relationship and are very close. I know they have my back and vice-versa. When you form that brotherhood, it would be disrespectful to not give it your all. I’d run through a wall for them. ”
They are the heart of the defense and the rest of the players feed off of them, including Uzodinma, who had the game-defining play in the second quarter, the pick which shifted the momentum.
Without communication from veterans such as Cosby, Uzodinma might not even be in a position to make that play.
“They help a lot,” Uzodinma said. “Especially with Bryce [Cosby] at safety. Even when we watch film, he will notice a route concept. I already have a jump on [the other team] just by us communicating.”
The connection of the defense is something the team believes is special, and the hard work from the veterans through adversity is starting to come full circle, even for the younger guys.
Contact Ian Hansen with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ianh_2.