Ball State couldn’t catch its breath.

Four plays into the game, the offense that chose to receive the ball to start the game was running the wrong way, as Jerome Smith’s black No. 20 jersey trotted into the end zone following an interception and sent the lower level at the Georgia Dome into a frenzy.

Three plays later, Riley Neal's third down pass was tipped at the line. Picked. Jerome Smith, again.

Statistics

Ball State total yards: 455

Georgia State total yards: 272

Ball State team rushing yards: 325

James Gilbert rushing yards: 161

Darian Green rushing yards: 93

Georgia State team rushing yards: 77

Ball State turnovers: 2 (2 INT, 0 fumbles)

Georgia State turnovers: 3 (2 INT, 1 fumble)

The Cardinals couldn’t afford to fall behind 14-0 on the road. And thanks to a defense that forced three first-half turnovers, they didn’t.

Ball State's defense held Georgia State to 272 total yards, and Mike Neu’s new-look Cardinals rushed for 325 yards on their way to a 31-21 victory in the season opener on Friday.

"We had about as bad of a start as you could from an offensive standpoint," Neu said. "The defense did a fantastic job the whole game, especially in the first half when they kind of had to carry the load. But our guys stuck together ... and came out [in the second half] with the mindset of 'This is our game.'"

Neu said earlier in the week the Cardinals would have to play hard and limit mistakes if they were going to beat adversity.

Georgia native Corey Hall’s interception midway through the first set up Ball State with a short field. The Cardinals moved the ball on the ground, with quick throws to senior receiver KeVonn Mabon before sophomore running back James Gilbert punched it in from the 1-yard line to even the score at 7-7.

Gilbert finished the game as Ball State’s leading rusher with 29 carries, 161 yards and two short touchdowns. Ball State improved to 3-0 in Gilbert’s young career when he scored two touchdowns.

"When we watch film, [offensive line coach Kyle] DeVan told us all the little running lanes that would be there," Gilbert said. "We just had to trust the linemen, find the holes and hit it downhill."

After catching their breath in the high-flying the first quarter, the Cardinals controlled the tempo of the game.

They also reacted to adversity better than they did in last season's 31-19 loss to the Panthers, said linebacker Sean Wiggins.

"When you think about last year, if we were in the same situation, I don't think it goes the same way," said the senior, who had five tackles and a forced fumble. "Something's changed. We dug deep and didn't care we got put in that position."

Georgia State changed momentum at the beginning of the fourth quarter, forcing a turnover on downs after three straight stops at the 1-yard line. But the drive stalled, and Neal made them pay.

Neal's hadn’t been particularly sharp — he finished 15-29 with just 130 yards and the two picks. But when he ran to the right after pulling the ball back on a zone read, the crowd gasped at the entire Panthers’ defense running left toward the empty-handed running back.

The sophomore quarterback used his long legs to gallop 46-yards downfield to the Georgia State 15-yard line, setting up senior running back Teddy Williamson’s second career touchdown that gave Ball State a 24-14 lead with 8:43 remaining.

Junior Darian Green, who finished with 13 carries and 93 yards, scored Ball State’s final touchdown on an 8-yard run with 4:46 remaining in the game.

The offense wasn’t perfect by any means, said Neal, but still gained 455 total yards.

"We were pretty one-dimensional after the poor start," Neal said. "We kind of rallied in the second half on offense, but by that point, we didn't need to. We were gashing them running the ball."

Ball State’s defense, which was a little bit of a question mark coming in given last year’s struggles, kept Georgia State on its toes all night. The Panthers gained 77 net yards on the ground, mostly from quarterback Aaron Winchester.

Winchester took over for starter Conner Manning in the second half and finished with 61 yards on the ground with an 11-yard touchdown run.

But his legs were used out of necessity, as the Cardinals’ pass rush put pressure on Georgia State’s quarterbacks all night, and the secondary made plays when it had to.

With the win, Ball State’s “Neu era” is off to a good start.

"We've prepared hard for the last seven months," Neu said. "And it was great to see our hard work pay off, and the belief we're trying to create amongst our guys is great to see."

The Cardinals will be back in action Sept. 10 when they head down to Bloomington to take on Indiana University (1-0).