Created:Tuesday, November 15, 2011 5:30 a.m.CDT

GAMEDAY: Huskies take on Cardinals

Northern Illinois receiver Nathan Palmer runs after a catch against Western Michigan on Oct. 15. The Huskies return home today for a game against Ball State. (Rob Winner –

DeKALB – One of these teams were expected to be here for the past year. The other’s ascent is as surprising as anything that’s happened in recent Mid-American Conference history.

But, improbably, Northern Illinois and Ball State can pull one game from winning the West Division when they kick off at 7 p.m. today at Huskie Stadium. Both control their chances of winning the division if they win their final two games. The difference: NIU is the defending West champs, while Ball State was picked to finish fifth out of six teams in the preseason.

The Cardinals surprised everyone – almost.

“When we were there, we thought this year would be the year when they’d make a jump,” said NIU running backs coach Eddie Faulkner, who spent the past eight seasons as a Ball State assistant. “Their coaches have done a great job. They’re well-coached, they’ve had some good wins, they’re a good team.

“I’ve paid attention to [them], definitely.”

Faulkner’s face still lights up when he talks about home. He grew up five minutes from Ball State’s campus, a star running back at Muncie Central before leaving to play at Wisconsin. When he returned, he coached for the program he was raised to root for.

He started as a graduate assistant in 2003 and 2004 before moving into the running backs’ room. After former head coach Brady Hoke left for San Diego State – one stop from arriving at Michigan – on the heels of a 12-0 regular season, Faulkner stayed to become offensive coordinator. Many thought he was coach in waiting behind Hoke’s replacement, Stan Parrish, but things didn’t work out.

Parrish was fired after two dismal seasons. Faulkner was named interim head coach, applied to make the position permanent, then left when current coach Pete Lembo was hired and brought his staff with him. The transition put Faulkner in an odd place this week, preparing to match up against players he recruited.

“I look at them out there, and I’m just like, ‘Man, I know their mom, I know their dad,’ “ Faulkner said. “I know a lot of those kids, and I love those kids. I want to see them have success, just not [today].”

Faulkner’s history isn’t lost on his current players. Senior running back Jasmin Hopkins said he and some of his teammates circled around Faulkner last week, teasing him.

“We were asking if he was going to be really thirsty for this game, any extra stuff,” Hopkins said. “He was like, ‘Nah, I’m going to treat it like any other game.’ Which I respect him for that. He said he still has respect for Ball State. He basically recruited like 60 percent of the Ball State team.

“But you could tell, he wants this game really bad.”

Even if he doesn’t say so publicly.

Faulkner sounds like a man who has closure. He said his attention is on bigger things than personal rivalries. The Cardinals’ 2008 season – which Faulkner still calls the highlight of his coaching career, saying “I don’t know how many people have been in this business and never experienced an undefeated regular season” – failed to end with a MAC title.

All he cares about is getting one game closer to another opportunity. He’ll think about the rest later.

“My feelings toward that school have nothing to do with the run we’re trying to make to win the championship. That’s much bigger,” Faulkner said. “So we haven’t talked much about that. I’ve shared insight, and things that I know that might help us win. But I don’t think I need to do that because they know what my history is.

“I’m a Huskie now.”

Will NIU football win the MAC this season?