Ball State quarterback Riley Neal looks upfield playing against the University of Illinois on Sept. 2, 2017. Neal finished the game with 204 passing yards, a passing touchdown and 41 rushing yards. Ball State lost 24-21. Robby General, DN
Ball State drops opener to Illinois
Maybe it was a no-win situation for Ball State kicker Morgan Hagee.
With five seconds left, the junior lined up for a 54-yard game-tying field goal, a full nine yards further out than the 45-yarder he hit as a freshman, the longest of his career.
Behind him, the Illinois student section chanting as it had for most of the fourth quarter.
Passing yards: 204
Rushing yards: 171
Third-down conversions: 12 of 21
Passing yards: 145
Rushing yards: 71
Third-down conversions: 2 of 10
"Ball is not a State. Ball is not a State."
Hagee's kick didn't make it past the line of scrimmage. The Illinois special teams unit blocked it as time expired, sending Ball State back to Muncie with an 0-1 record after a 24-21 loss.
"There's enough blame to go around, but for us we have to be able to finish on the road against a Big Ten opponent," Ball State head coach Mike Neu said. "We weren't able to do that. We had positive things happen for us, but, again, it comes down to us being able to finish when we have the opportunity."
The Cardinals were in excellent position with less than a minute left, but on first-and-10 from the Illini 30, junior quarterback Riley Neal dropped the ball after from Illinois freshman defensive end Isaiah Gay.
A review overturned the original ruling of an Illinois fumble recovery with 40 seconds left, setting up Hagee's last-second effort.
Neal finished with 204 passing yards, a passing touchdown and another 60 yards on the ground.
"We definitely had spurts where we went down and drove the field, but it doesn't matter," Neal said. "There were times where the defense stuck their neck out for us and made some stops in tough situations. We just needed another first down or two here and there to run the clock out but didn't execute."
Ball State out-gained Illinois by more than 150 yards, 375-216. The Cardinals also converted 12 of 21 third-down attempts, while the Illini only converted two of 10.
Still, Illinois capitalized on mistakes better than Ball State.
The Cardinals, for example, forced the Illini to punt on the game-opening drive that included a sack from redshirt sophomore linebacker Jacob White and tackles for loss from redshirt junior linebacker Damon Singleton and redshirt senior defensive end Anthony Winbush.
A short 39-yard punt put Ball State in good field position, starting at its own 37-yard line. But on third-and-7, redshirt sophomore wide receiver Antwan Davis fumbled after catching what would've been a first down. Illinois junior linebacker Tre Watson returned the fumble to the 16-yard line, and on first down junior quarterback Chayce Crouch connected with junior receiver Mike Dudek for a touchdown.
“We made some plays down the stretch that gave us a lot of confidence, obviously we didn’t make enough to win the game and that’s our main concern," White said. "We’ll go on the positives, but at the end of the day we feel as a defensive unit that we need to win every single game, offense feels the same way, we just have to do a better job complimenting each other.”
The Cardinals' offense bounced back on the next drive, putting together a 15-play, 80-yard drive that ended with an 8-yard touchdown pass from Neal to redshirt freshman tight end Nolan Givan and a 7-6 Ball State lead.
But the drive nearly ended at the Illinois 30-yard line. Immediately following an incomplete pass on third-and-7, Neal hooked up with former Yorktown High School teammate Riley Miller for an 11-yard gain on fourth down.
Miller led the Cardinals with seven catches and 86 yards, stepping up in the absence of last season's top two receivers.
"As a receiving corps we knew we lost a lot," Miller said. "We knew it was going to be a group effort."
Illinois, however, responded with a crucial fourth-down conversion of its own in the second quarter.
The Cardinals stopped Illini senior running back Kendrick Foster for a loss of three yards on third-and-2, and with fourth-and-5 on the Ball State 36-yard line Crouch hit senior wide receiver Malik Turner for an 11-yard gain and a first down. Epstein capped the drive with a 6-yard touchdown run to put Illinois back ahead 13-7.
Illinois added a 40-yard field goal from junior kicker Chase McLaughlin to lead 16-7 at half.
"There were critical moments in each and every quarter," Neu said. "There are critical moments in each and every series. For us, all I can say is we had an opportunity and we weren't able to finish in the fourth quarter like we needed to in order to have an opportunity to win."
Ball State came out strong in the third quarter with a 15-play touchdown drive for 75 yards, ending with a three-yard run by sophomore running back Malik Dunner.
The Cardinals defense then forced a three-and-out, and the offense kept clicking with a 13-play, 77-yard drive that ended with another three-yard run, this one a sweep around the right side by junior running back James Gilbert, who led the team with 74 rushing yards.
That 14-point swing put Ball State ahead 21-16, and the Illini went three-and-out on their final two third-quarter drives.
Illinois couldn't do much against Ball State's defense, with their best chance of scoring seeming to come on a missed 44-yard field goal attempt with 8:59 left in the game. Freshman safety Bryce Cosby even made a diving interception on a tipped pass with 5:50 left.
"That's our main goal, is making sure we finish every play," Winbush said. "Make sure we're getting after it and make sure we finish the game, not just being satisfied with winning three quarters."
Ball State's offense went three-and-out, which wasn't the end of the world given its position on its own 49-yard line. A well placed punt could've pinned Illinois deep with less than four minutes to go.
But Dudek had other plans. He fielded freshman punter Nathan Snyder's bouncing kick at the 13-yard line and weaved 52 yards down the field to give the Illini a first down at the Cardinals' 35-yard line.
From there, Illinois needed just four plays to score the go-ahead touchdown, a one-yard Epstein plunge up the middle. Crouch ran for the two-point conversion that put the Illini up 24-21 with 2:06 to go.
"We've been preaching finish," Riley Miller said. "Finish, finish, finish. We obviously didn't do that, but it's something to build off of, something to keep going forward this next week, and hopefully we can put that repertoire to our skill set."
Ball State hosts UAB at Scheumann Stadium for its home opener Saturday, Sept. 9 at 3 p.m.