By MICHAEL MAROT
AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS -- Ball State has overcome various obstacles on its way to an 8-0 record.
The 16th-ranked Cardinals have beaten the nation's top-ranked rushing offense, the Indiana Hoosiers' fast-paced, no-huddle strategy and everyone else's attempt to play keep the ball away from their own potent attack.
Worst of all, Ball State's star receiver Dante Love went down with a career-ending spinal injury four weeks into the season. Love is expected to lead a normal life, though one without football. Instead of being undone by the injury, the Cardinals have used Love as an inspiration to keep the perfect season going.
The next daunting challenge for Ball State comes Wednesday night, when the Cardinals face the Mid-American Conference's best defensive team in Northern Illinois.
"They get after it as a football team, they play with aggression," Ball State coach Brady Hoke said. "For us, we haven't had that type of game yet, so we've got to get ready to play a 60-minute game."
Wednesday night's game is a rare opportunity for the Cardinals (4-0) to show off their team to a national television audience.
The list of remaining unbeatens in major college football has shrunk to six. Alabama, Texas Tech and Penn State are ranked Nos. 1, 2 and 3 and are being bandied about as national championship contenders. No. 9 Boise State and No. 10 Utah are the leading contenders to break into the BCS from the five conferences without automatic access to the big-money bowl games.
And then there's Ball State.
It's the first time since 1965 the Cardinals have started 8-0, and they are gradually getting noticed. They have moved steadily up the rankings since first cracking the Top 25 a month ago and climbed to 17th-place in this week's BCS standings, too.
The Cardinals have BCS dreams of their own -- though it's a long shot.
Ball State needs to keep winning and hope teams such as Boise State, Utah and TCU get knocked off.
Around the MAC, they know how good Ball State can be.
The Cardinals have an NFL prospect in quarterback Nate Davis, 6-foot-6 Darius Hill at tight end, a talented group of receivers and running back MiQuale Lewis, who is seventh in the nation in rushing.
Nobody has even come close to beating the Cardinals this season. Ball State has won every game by at least 12 points, and no team has been within 17 points since early September.
"The big thing with Ball State is they don't make mistakes," Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill said. "They're very sound on offense, defense and in the kicking game. They've got a great quarterback. He's special, there's no question about that, and he's got it going right now."
Plus, they've had extra time to prepare for the Huskies (5-3, 4-1). Neither team has played since Oct. 25.
But Northern Illinois has a penchant for keeping opponents off the field and out of the end zone. They're allowing just 8.2 points per game over the past six weeks, a stretch in which they've won five times.
Nationally, they're ranked ninth in points allowed per game (13.6) and rely on their own NFL prospect, defensive lineman Larry English, to stymie opponents. English has 4 1/2 sacks despite facing the usual array of double teams and chip blocks, and playing with a broken thumb.
"He's a guy who plays hard every play," Kill said. "This game's about getting your guys to play hard every play and when you put the tapes on, not everyone was playing that way last year. He certainly did."
English will spend Wednesday night chasing the Cardinals' efficient offense in hopes of bringing home the first "Bronze Stalk" trophy, a new trinket that goes to the winner of the Ball State-Northern Illinois game.
The Cardinals have higher aspirations, such as winning a MAC title. To get there, they'll likely have to show they're capable of winning the close games, too.
"I'm not sure we have that mentality because we haven't played that kind of game yet," Hoke said. "But I think our mind-set is that this is going to be at least a 60 minute game."