Wide receiver KeVonn Mabon dodges a defender while running the ball during the Cardinals’ game against Akron on Oct. 22 in Scheumann Stadium. Mabon finished his last home game as a senior with 12 catches for 149 yards and three touchdowns in the game against Eastern Michigan on Nov. 8. Paige Grider // DN File
Turnovers mar otherwise stellar offensive performance for Ball State
With 41 points on the board and 542 offensive yards, Ball State’s offense still could’ve had a better day.
Senior receiver KeVonn Mabon even finished his last home game with 12 catches for 149 yards and three touchdowns (two receiving, one rushing) — but five turnovers and an inability to convert on third down cost the Cardinals in their 48-41 loss to Eastern Michigan.
“We’re not losing to these teams, we’re really just beating ourselves,” Mabon said. “All of our losses, we beat ourselves.”
Holding onto the football
Ball State fumbles: 4 (3 lost)
Eastern Michigan fumbles: 2 (2 lost)
Ball State interceptions: 2
Eastern Michigan interceptions: 1
Ball State third-down: 2-for-13
Eastern Michigan third-down: 12-for-22
Ball State is now 4-6 (1-5 MAC) on the season, and in its six losses the team has a minus-eight turnover margin. In their four wins, the Cardinals only have one more turnover than takeaways.
Head coach Mike Neu said it’s a constant battle to cut down on mistakes.
“We have a turnover circuit every week,” Neu said. “The ball carriers, the pass catchers, those guys go through human gauntlets. They work on fumbles on the sidelines, we have three different stations where we rotate guys on a daily basis. … Stay the course, the results will show.”
Early in the game, Ball State looked like it was running the show. The Cardinals led 21-3 after the first quarter, in large part due to two fumble recoveries deep inside Eastern Michigan territory.
Leading 7-0, redshirt junior defensive back David Moore jumped on a fumble forced by junior defensive lineman John Swisher. Ball State the ball on Eastern Michigan’s 14-yard line, and two plays later Mabon took a direct snap for a six-yard touchdown run and a 14-0 lead.
On the Eagles’ next offensive play, redshirt senior Zack Ryan forced another fumble — this one recovered by senior defensive back Martez Hester on Eastern Michigan’s 33 yard-line. A few plays later, sophomore running back James Gilbert scored on a three-yard touchdown run. 21-0 Ball State.
But the short fields masked the Cardinals’ problems on third down. They finished 2-for-13 on third-down attempts and didn’t convert one until midway through the fourth quarter. It didn’t help that Gilbert, Ball State’s leading rusher, left the game with an injury near the end of the first half.
“That hurt, obviously,” Neu said. “He’s been such a big issue in terms of those third down-and-shorts where we’re giving the ball to James and he’s getting a first down, but two of 13’s not good enough.”
It was an uncharacteristic performance for the Cardinals, who entered the game third in the MAC with a 45.3 percent conversion rate. Mabon said the solution is simple: players need to step up and force the issue.
“If it’s third-and-20 and he throws the ball, our receiver has to make the play,” Mabon said. “If it’s third-and-1, the running back has to get that one yard. We’ve just got to make plays regardless of what the situation is.”
With Gilbert out for the second half, Neu leaned on quarterback Riley Neal. The sophomore attempted 50 passes — a season-high for Neal — and completed 30 for 393 yards with three touchdowns and added 45 yards on the ground with another touchdown.
But he also lost two fumbles and threw two interceptions, with one of each coming in the end zone. Neu said he doesn’t hold the second pick against Neal because there was no option but to chuck it to the end zone as time expired — but the other three turnovers were killers.
“We have to have a chance at the end so I don’t look at that one, but you can’t have two fumbles and you can’t have an interception,” Neu said. “He’s responsible for three turnovers tonight. When you’re a quarterback and you want to lead your team to wins … you have to eliminate the turnovers.”
On Nov. 16, Ball State will hit the road to play Toledo (7-2, 4-1 MAC). The Cardinals will have to beat both the Rockets and the Miami Redhawks to reach the six-win benchmark for bowl eligibility.
And to do it, they’ll have to cut down on turnovers.