DeKALB – Sitting along the east sideline at Northern Illinois practice this week was the Bronze Stalk trophy.
When the Huskies concluded practice Wednesday, tight end Luke Eakes went over, grabbed the trophy, and the team eventually gathered around it in the middle of the field as head coach Dave Doeren gave his post-practice talk.
The trophy depicts several corn stalks, a tribute to the towns both universities reside in. Dekalb and Muncie, Ind. are cities not too far from Chicago and Indianapolis, respectively, and corn fields are found all over both areas. Both schools' logos are on the wooden base of the rivalry trophy.
NIU saw a lot of the Bronze Stalk this past week in team meetings or somewhere else in the Yordon Center.
"Any time our team's together, it'll be with us," Doeren said Wednesday.
Just four years old, the Bronze Stalk might not be as famous as other rivalry trophies, such as the Jeweled Shillelagh (USC-Notre Dame), Old Oaken bucket (Purdue-Indiana), Cy-Hawk Trophy (Iowa-Iowa State) or Commander-in-Chief's Trophy (Army-Navy-Air Force).
When he was a Wisconsin assistant, Doeren played for Paul Bunyan's Axe in the Badgers' yearly rivalry with Minnesota. The axe was first given out in 1948. Wisconsin also played Iowa for the Heartland Trophy from 2004-2010, before the teams were put into separate divisions in the Big Ten, ending the rivalry's annual status.
The Bronze Stalk may only be four years old, but all rivalry trophies symbolize the same thing.
"I think every school you go to, when they have a rivalry game with a trophy, they're going to talk a lot about it and make it a big deal," Doeren said. "You know, for us [the Bronze Stalk] symbolizes victory. Obviously that's something we take a lot of pride in, is having a victory against a team that's a really good team.
"If we can hang on to it it means we did a really good job."
Other rivalry trophies around the Mid-American Conference include the I-75 Trophy (Bowling Green-Toledo), Wagon Wheel (Akron-Kent State) and Golden Cannon (Central Michigan-Western Michigan).
The three Michigan schools in the conference play for the Michigan MAC Trophy, which is awarded to the team with the best round-robin mark between the teams.
Two schools play for trophies in non-conference rivalry games with the same name – the Battle for the Bell. Miami (Ohio) and Cincinnati have been playing each other since 1888, while Ohio and Marshall renewed their rivalry two years ago after the Thundering Herd left the MAC after the 2004 season.
The first Bronze Stalk was instituted in 2008, and the initial game was one NIU fans would like to forget as the Huskies went to Muncie, Ind. in 2008 and lost, 45-14. But since then, the Bronze Stalk has had a comfortable resting place in DeKalb, with the Huskies beating Ball State the past three seasons.
Last year, the trophy nearly went back to Muncie, but NIU rallied from 17 points down in the second half to defeat the Cardinals.
This year's Huskies are hoping the trophy is with them on the Saturday night bus ride up I-65.
"It's our trophy," junior offensive tackle Matt Krempel said. "We don't want to see that thing leave here, ever."
NIU'S FIVE KEYS TO VICTORY
1. Get comfortable with the surroundings
Northern Illinois survived it's first road test at Michie Stadium in West Point, N.Y. Sure, it's a tough place to play, but Army is currently 0-4. Today's game at Ball State could very well be the Huskies' toughest road game of the season.
2. Get pressure on Wenning
The Cardinals' offensive line has given up just three sacks this season. NIU has been able to get to the quarterback in 2012, but didn't record a sack during last week's win over Central Michigan. If Wenning has a lot of time to throw, it could be a long day for the Huskies defense.
3. Control Snead
Ball State receiver Willie Snead leads the Mid-American Conference with an average of 107.4 receiving yards per game. The Cardinals sophomore will probably be the biggest test so far this year for NIU senior cornerback Rashaan Melvin, who has had a good year, even though he was beat on Central Michigan receiver Titus Davis' 92-yard touchdown catch last week.
4. Keep the turnovers coming
The Huskie defense finally forced a turnover against a Football Bowl Subdivision team last week, notching an interception and a fumble recovery. NIU's defense has seen an improvement from last season, and getting some more takeaways will only help.
5. Control own destiny
There are few easy games in the MAC, and in a deep MAC West, every game could be considered a must-win. If the Huskies keep their conference winning streak going, there won't be any scoreboard watching in November.