Senior quarterback Jordan Lynch tossed two touchdown passes to wide receiver Da'Ron Brown, including a 36-yarder in the fourth quarter, to lift No. 15 Northern Illinois to a come-from-behind, 48-27 win over Ball State on Wednesday night at Huskie Stadium.
The Huskies (10-0, 6-0 Mid-American Conference) broke open a 27-27 tie in the fourth quarter, scoring the final 21 points.
Brown's second touchdown reception came with 5:49 to go. Northern Illinois added a 16-yard touchdown run by Lynch with 1:26 left and defensive end Joe Windsor's 49-yard interception return for a touchdown with 46 seconds remaining.
Northern Illinois' defense keyed the late spurt with a fourth-down stop when the Huskies were clinging to a 34-27 lead.
Lynch completed 26 of 32 passes for 345 yards and two touchdowns, and he ran for 123 yards and two touchdowns to carry the Huskies to their 23rd conference win in a row. Lynch has 1,273 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground this season, plus 2,216 passing yards and 21 touchdowns.
"We really battled and came on strong late in the game, and the defense deserves a lot of credit," Lynch said.
Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey said Lynch deserves to be listed among the Heisman Trophy contenders.
"It he's not in the conversation (for the Heisman), then I don't know who should be," Carey said. "That's a good team we beat. ... He better be in the conversation."
Brown caught eight passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns. Brown fumbled away the ball in the red zone with the score knotted at 27-27, but he atoned but scoring the go-ahead touchdown.
"We told (Da'Ron) after he had that mistake that we would need him again," Carey said. "He stayed in there mentally and then made a huge catch."
The Huskies, who have won three consecutive MAC West Division titles, have to beat Toledo on Nov. 20 to secure another trip to the MAC championship game in Detroit.
The Cardinals (9-2, 6-1) were held to three points in the second half despite finishing with 494 yards of total offense and scoring on four straight first-half drives, including three consecutive touchdowns.
"They moved the ball and had a big second quarter," said Northern Illinois defensive end George Rainey, who had the Huskies' only sack. "As a defense, we did enough to win the game."
Ball State quarterback Keith Wenning finished 35-for-49 for 324 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Cardinals running back Jahwan Edwards produced 156 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries, and wide receiver Willie Snead had 12 receptions for 121 yards and a score.
"Their defense made a big stop when they needed to," Ball State coach Pete Lembo said. "If we convert that fourth down, it would've been a different game. We played a good game. ... Their crowd was a big factor."
Both teams struggled scoring in the first quarter, but the game came to life in the second quarter.
The Cardinals led 7-3 after the opening quarter following a 3-yard touchdown pass from Wenning to Snead. The Huskies, who fell behind early in eight of their first nine games, fought back to seize a 10-7 after Lynch scored on a 2-yard run early in the second quarter.
The Cardinals, who defeated Virginia earlier this season, quickly answered with a 10-play, 67-yard drive that ended with Wenning's 1-yard touchdown run for a 14-10 lead.
Northern Illinois senior kicker Mathew Sims drilled his second field goal of the half, a 20-yarder to cut the deficit to 14-13 with five minutes left until halftime.
Wenning, who holds Ball State's career record in touchdown passes, passing yards, pass completions and pass attempts, responded by marching the Cardinals down the field, with Edwards scoring a 5-yard touchdown to cap a 75-yard drive and extend the lead to 21-13.
The Huskies immediately trimmed the deficit to 21-20 when Brown took a screen pass from Lynch and raced 58 yards for a touchdown with 1:13 left until halftime.
The Cardinals closed out a wild second quarter with a 43-yard field goal by Scott Secor with 25 seconds remaining for a 24-20 halftime lead.
"After the first quarter, (Wenning) really settled in and the whole offense did and we moved the ball," Lembo said.
In the third quarter, the Huskies regained the lead thanks to a 17-play, 85-yard drive that featured two fourth-down conversions, including running back Cameron Stingily's 1-yard touchdown plunge, for a 27-20 edge.