Quarterback Riley Neal looks to pass the ball during the Cardinals’ game against Northern Illinois on Oct. 1 in Scheumann Stadium. Ball State lost 31 to 24. Paige Grider// DN
First half struggles persist in Ball State's win at Buffalo
Sophomore running back James Gilbert stole the show Oct. 15, but it's hard to ignore Ball State's lackluster performance in the first half against Buffalo.
The Cardinals had three turnovers and punted four times in the first two quarters, leading to a 14-7 halftime deficit. It was the fifth time in seven games this season they have been behind coming out of the locker room.
Unlike the last two weeks, Ball State was able to fight back for a 31-21 victory. But head coach Mike Neu knows his team has got to be better from the opening kickoff.
Score by quarter — 2016 season
First quarter: 45-51
Second quarter: 44-62
Third quarter: 41-10
Fourth quarter: 69-45
"Obviously we had some self-inflicted wounds in the first half, and we just can't do that," he said after the game. "The half ended on a sour note for us, but I was proud of our guys coming back out in the second half, fighting and scratching and clawing, and finding a way to get a victory."
Ball State actually had a chance to tie — or get within four — of Buffalo at halftime.
After a touchdown pass put the Bulls up 14-7, the Cardinals started a drive at their 25-yard line with three timeouts. Senior running back Teddy Williamson broke off a 23-yard run, and sophomore quarterback Riley Neal found freshman receiver Damon Hazelton on three straight plays to the Buffalo 24.
A few plays and a delay of game penalty later, Ball State had one play left to try and score a touchdown, or if not, at least get a field goal. Neal, however, tried to force one to junior Jordan Hogue in traffic, resulting his second pick of the first half.
"There was a single high safety, so when you're throwing four verticals, you look off the middle safety to the left with your eyes, then drop it in the back corner of the end zone there where our guy gets it or nobody does," Neu said.
Ball State scored on its opening possession of the game to go up 7-0, but ended its four other first-half drives in Buffalo territory without any points to show for it.
"We felt like we just left some stuff out there," Neal said. "It felt like there were some opportunities out there we didn't take advantage of, but we came out and started pretty strong in the second half."
Ball State went into the locker room with 230 yards, but the turnovers limited the offense. Even Gilbert, who scored the team's first touchdown, had just 14 carries for 43 yards at halftime.
The Mid-American Conference leading rusher benefitted from Ball State's commitment to the run in the second half, finishing with 34 carries for a career-high 264 yards and two visits to the end zone.
"The more carries I get, the better I get," Gilbert said. "I pride myself on that. The first half, just try to get a feel. Then the second half, just get a rhythm and keep it going."
Ball State's offense has been the living embodiment of just that this season. The Cardinals have now been outscored 113-89 in the first half this year, while outscoring opponents 110-55 in the second.
It worked against Buffalo, but continuing that trend may become more difficult as Ball State enters the home stretch of its schedule against some of the best teams in the MAC.
"I'm proud of our guys, just for competing," Neu said. "For us to get our first MAC win on the road, nothing is ever easy. You have to go earn it every week in this league, gotta be at your best. Our first half we weren't, second half we were much better."