DeKALB – Ball State running back Malik Dunner took the handoff from quarterback Jack Milas and sprinted around the right end where one Northern Illinois defender appeared to have the proper angle to make a play.
The reality was, he had little chance of catching Dunner.
Dunner accelerated and raced around the defender for a 4-yard touchdown. Seconds later he heard the familiar voice of his mother, Thelma Dunner, screaming his name from the stands. The former Dundee-Crown star had almost 40 tickets for family and friends Thursday night at Huskie Stadium, the closest game to home he has played this season.
“It was cool for her and my brother (Kareem) and my family to see,” Dunner said. “She’s always there, so it’s not much different.”
It was a nice moment for Dunner, although the Cardinals (2-8) dropped another game by another big score, 63-17, as the Huskies improved to 7-3 and made further plans for a bowl game.
Dunner leads the Cardinals with seven touchdowns and is second in rushing with 321 yards on 59 carries. He also leads Ball State in kickoff return yards with 646.
The 5-foot-11, 200-pound sophomore would like to play more, although he has made the most out of the opportunities he has gotten after James Gilbert, an All-Mid-American Conference running back, suffered a thumb injury in the third game and was lost for the season.
“Once he got that handoff and Malik had some space, we all felt pretty good that he was going to finish the play,” Cardinals coach Mike Neu said of the aforementioned touchdown.
Dunner had not touched the ball Thursday until the play previous to the touchdown. He ran 16 yards on that carry to set up the 4-yard score. On his next touch, he ran back a kickoff 40 yards to set up Ball State at Northern’s 43-yard line. But Milas was hit as he threw on the next play and was intercepted.
“It tells you what kind of unselfish player he is, but it also says we have to get the ball in his hands more because he is one of those guys,” Neu said. “Not only in the backfield, but in the passing game, on wheel routes, he’s a mismatch for a linebacker or a safety. He’s one of those guys, because of his speed and elusiveness, he’s going to win that matchup.”
Neu’s words would have been welcomed by a proud mother.
“He’s doing an awesome job,” Thelma Dunner said. “I’m proud of him. He’s done real good. I think they should give him the ball more. When they give him the ball more, stuff will happen.”
Thelma didn’t think football was going to be Malik’s sport when he was younger. She thought basketball or track would be his thing. He begged her to let him play football.
“He proved me wrong,” she said.
Dunner transferred from Elgin to D-C before the 2013-14 school year and became an integral part of the Chargers’ 6-4 football team, the first to make the playoffs at D-C since 1994. He was a threat as a return man, a running back and a receiver, although he was not their main ballcarrier.
Dunner struggled with an ankle injury his senior season, but Chargers football coach Mike Steinhaus, a Ball State graduate and former Cardinals tight end, got the staff to look at Dunner during track season. After seeing his blazing speed, the Cardinals offered.
Dunner got some time as a freshman but has made a much bigger impact this season.
“I’m proud of him,” Steinhaus said. “Being an alum of both schools, it’s fun to see someone that worked really hard get to pursue his dream. I’m glad he’s continuing his education at a great school, and there’s nothing better than watching his mom and little brother watching him in a Division I stadium.”
Kareem Dunner, a D-C sophomore running back, was wearing a white hoodie with his brother’s picture emblazoned on the back for Thursday’s game.
“He tells me to stay focused and don’t let anything disrupt your path, stuff like that,” Kareem said. “It’s fun to see. I’m proud. My family’s proud. It’s great. I’ve been to most of his games.”
Kareem said the touchdowns serve as motivation to him when he gets back on the field next season.
Malik Dunner had his own motivation last spring when Neu instituted a new rule regarding numbers. The single digits would go to players the staff saw as leaders and role models in the offseason. Dunner had No. 21 through the spring, but he’s back wearing No. 4 this fall.
“His work ethic is one of those things that stands out more than anything else,” Neu said. “He’s a great human being. He’s the most unselfish guy on our team. He’s great to be around every day in practice. He’s always got a smile on his face. I’m excited for what the future holds for him.”
Dunner, who is studying sports administration and some day would like to be an athletic director, is going to keep putting forth maximum effort. Caleb Huntley, a 5-10, 225-pound freshman, is the starting running back and has topped 700 yards rushing since Gilbert was lost.
While Huntley has more size and power, Dunner gives the Cardinals a home-run threat. He ran back a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown in a win against Alabama-Birmingham on
Sept. 9, then had a 66-yard touchdown run in a win over Tennessee Tech a week later.
Dunner has passed his high school coach’s best season for touchdowns at Ball State, as Steinhaus’ best year was four.
“I got a lot of touchdowns, that is what it is, but I’m not playing as much as I’d like to play,” Dunner said. “I’m going to do whatever I can in the offseason to get better. It’s nice to lead the team in touchdowns. I’ve been a good kick returner this year. I want to get better next year.”
• Joe Stevenson is a senior sports writer for the Northwest Herald. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You also can follow him on Twitter