DEKALB - Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish didn't appear rusty Thursday despite missing three games with a knee injury.
Harnish entered the Mid-American clash with Ball State early in the third quarter and went 9-for-9 for 60 yards and a touchdown as the Huskies claimed a 26-20 victory.
NIU (7-3, 5-1 MAC West) enhanced its postseason bowl prospects with a fourth-straight win while the Cardinals (1-9, 1-5) dropped their sixth game by 7 or fewer points.
"I had no idea when I was going to go in," said Harnish, who had not played since Oct. 24 at Miami. "I felt like there was going to come a time when I was going to get some reps and some playing time and knock the rust off. I got that chance in the second half and I feel good."
Harnish hit wide receiver Marcus Lewis on a 6-yard scoring strike late in the third quarter for a 26-13 lead.
"We needed him to play," said Huskies coach Jerry Kill. "It was a chance to see what he could do and how he could play on his knee. We didn't want to go to Ohio (next week) and not have any time. We need to see what he could do, where he's at."
Ball State trimmed the lead to 26-20 on Tanner Justice's 29-yard touchdown pass to Daniel Ifft with 6:53 left in regulation. The Cardinals had one more late possession but were bottled up deep in their own territory.
"We haven't given up the ship," said Cardinals coach Stan Parrish. "We've competed and played hard - not always pretty - but hard all the way. We're very resilient, we're very young, and I have a great vision for our team in the very near future."
The teams traded touchdowns on their respective first possessions. Ball State used a 24-yard run by Cory Sykes and a 52-yard run by McQuale Lewis deep inside NIU territory to set up a 5-yard Eric Williams touchdown run.
NIU responded with a 10-play drive and a 9-yard touchdown pass from starting quarterback DeMarcus Grady to wide receiver Preston Williams.
The Huskies added a safety and a 6-yard Chad Spann touchdown for a 16-7 lead late in the first quarter.
A pair of second-quarter field goals by Ian McGarvey trimmed the deficit to 16-13. Huskies kicker Mike Salerno got one back with a 41-yard, third-quarter field goal.
Nathan Palmer and Spann had 69 and 63 yards rushing, respectively, for NIU. Landon Cox had 6 receptions for 40 yards.
Sykes paced Ball State with 75 yards on 11 carries while Lewis had 9 carries for 58 yards. Justice was 11 of 19 for 134 yards, with Briggs Osborn catching 3 for 41 yards.