KeVonn Mabon, a wide receiver for the Ball State Cardinals, pushes past Eastern Kentucky cornerback Buck Solomon in the home opener on Sept. 17 in Scheumann Stadium. Ball State won 41-14. Grace Ramey // DN
Dominant defense leads Ball State past Eastern Kentucky
Ball State recorded 17 sacks all of last season. This season, the team has 14.
And it's only been three games.
The Cardinals' defense got to the quarterback eight times on Saturday, as Ball State (2-1) jumped out to an early lead and trounced Eastern Kentucky 41-14 in its home opener at Scheumann Stadium. The Colonels mustered just 298 total yards.
Ball State — Game statistics
First downs — 28
Rushing yards — 193
Passing yards — 238
Total yards — 431
Total yards allowed — 289
Sacks — 8
Interceptions — 2
The Cardinals' eight sacks were the most they've had in a game in the last 10 years. Head coach Mike Neu praised his defensive staff for the preparation they put in during the week.
"We try to emphasize conditioning," Neu said. "There's no better way to play the game if you're a pass rusher than if you're fresh and your opponent is tired. If we can continue to emphasize that, ... that's going to create a lot of pressure and a lot of sacks for us."
Leading 17-0 in the second quarter, Ball State's pass rush not-so-kindly introduced itself to Eastern Kentucky quarterback Bennie Coney.
The Cardinals had already sacked starter Maty Mauk three times, and the Colonels turned to Coney for a spark. Facing a 3rd-and-10 at his own 10-yard line, he dropped back to pass, but was drilled from the blind side on the throw. Senior safety Martez Hester picked off the floating ball at the Colonels' 30 for the Cardinals' second of two interceptions on the day.
"I saw the pressure, I was reading his eyes. I knew he wanted to get the ball out fast," Hester said. "He ended up taking the hit, and threw it right to me, basically. I was just trying to get a feel of where he was going to throw it."
Quarterback Riley Neal found true freshman Damon Hazelton Jr. on a pretty back-shoulder throw in the right corner of the end zone five plays later to put the Cardinals up 24-0.
"It was tough, but it was the same throw I see in practice all the time," Hazelton Jr. said. "Riley gave me a perfect throw. Right in my catch radius as soon as I turned around."
It was all part of a 16-16 start for Neal, who finished with 28-39 for 238 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed 10 times for 44 yards and a 12-yard rushing touchdown.
Neal and the passing game finally found some rhythm in the passing game without Corey Lacanaria, who missed the game with the shoulder injury, and KeVonn Mabon, who exited the second half with injury. Hazelton Jr. and Devin Reece each scored a touchdown, and Jordan Hogue added six grabs for 35 yards.
The sophomore signal-caller said the defensive performance ties in with the success of the offense, and vice versa.
"It's huge when the defense is forcing turnovers, and even when they're not, they're forcing them to punt and giving us good field position," Neal said. "It's a lot easier to execute coming out from from the 35 or 40 as opposed to the 5 or 10."
Eastern Kentucky broke up the shutout with a 7-play, 77-yard drive that ended with a 28-yard touchdown pass from Mauk to Devin Borders.
Neu said the players were "upset" with the last few drives of the game. But this defense has been good through been three games.
And it's always looking for ways to get better.
"Not many times do you have the opportunity for a shutout," Neu said. "Every defensive player, staff and myself wanted the shutout. But it's not going to be sour grapes. It happened, we're going to learn from it."