Running back James Gilbert tries to punch the ball into the end zone against the Miami Redhawks, but was brought down by linebacker Brad Earnest at Yager Stadium. Ball State lost to Miami University, 21-20. Grace Hollars // DN
Competition pushes Gilbert to 4th on Ball State single-season rushing yards list
Sophomore James Gilbert already had 13 rushing yards when he took the handoff with 3:13 left in the first quarter.
The 5-foot-8-inch running back bursted through the line and veered left, leaving the Miami defense in the dust. He was eventually caught 40 yards downfield, but the run moved him from sixth place on Ball State's single-season rushing yards list to fourth.
Gilbert finished the game with 117 rushing yards and the season with 1,332 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns, but he finished four different games with less than 20 carries, including a 21-20 season-ending loss to the RedHawks Nov. 22. Meanwhile, five different players racked up at least 150 yards on the year.
Ball State single-season rushing leaders
1. MiQuale Lewis -- 1,736
2. Marcus Merriweather -- 1,618
3. Jahwan Edwards -- 1,410
4. James Gilbert -- 1,332
5. Jahwan Edwards -- 1,252
And in a weird way, head coach Mike Neu said, the competition for carries may have led to some of Gilbert's success.
"I learned very fast that [running back] was one of the strongest position groups from top to bottom because of the group of guys," Neu said. "Anybody could take the field at any given moment and know that you'll get good football out of that group, so I think James really benefitted from having guys like Darian Green, like Malik Dunner, like Teddy Williamson."
Even sophomore quarterback Riley Neal may have been motivated by the competition.
After taking over as the starting quarterback four games into the 2015 season, the job was his to lose this year. But injury forced him to watched redshirt junior quarterback Jack Milas start against Western Michigan.
"Yeah, that can be an eye-opener for a guy like [Neal] on the sideline," Neu said. "Watching that and knowing that, man, this guy is definitely capable of stepping in and leading our football team, leading our offense. When something like that happens, it kind of sometimes will force you to take a step back and say, 'Hey, I need to make sure I'm taking care of the football.'"
Neal came back the next week looking almost like a different player. In the nine games before sitting against Western, completed 60.1 percent of his passes for an average of 212.5 yards per game, plus an extra 39.2 yards per game on the ground.
In the three games after sitting, he completed 63.9 percent for 280.3 yards per game with 75.3 on the ground.
Neal's legs also helped open up the field for Gilbert. Neal ran for 96 yards against the RedHawks and scored a touchdown on a zone-read from Miami's 3-yard line in the second quarter.
"It helps us a lot because it's not just one person carrying the load," Gilbert said. "We're all out there, so any given time you've got to read not just the back, but you've got to read the quarterback because he can break out the big run too."
The running game also helped senior receiver KeVonn Mabon, who set the Cardinals' career receptions record in the second quarter. Mabon finished the Miami game with 11 receptions for 112 yards.
"We complement each other well," Mabon said. "They want to stack the box and we're going to throw the ball, if they're going to put more pressure in the box to stop the pass, we're going to let [Gilbert] do his thing."
But Mabon will be gone next year, as he's exhausted his eligibility. Gilbert, however, will be back — again looking to lead a crowded backfield.
"I wrote my goals down before the season started," Gilbert said. "Like, I wanted to get over 1000 yards, 10-plus touchdowns — which I did. I kept working hard, and next year I'll just do better."