Special teams play leads Ball State football in win over UAB
Sophomore running back Malik Dunner stands still with his feet on the goal line of Scheumann Stadium's north end zone, waiting for the kickoff.
On top of the grassy hill behind the end zone, the scoreboard showed the score: Ball State 31, UAB 24, with 42 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Cardinals (1-1) couldn't seem to pull away, and Alabama-Birmingham (1-1) redshirt junior quarterback A.J. Ederly just ran for his third touchdown of the day.
Passing yards: 217
Rushing yards: 160
Third down: 11 of 17
Penalties: 4 for 36 yards
Passing yards: 168
Rushing yards: 336
Third down: 7 of 11
Penalties: 9 for 81 yards
Dunner moves forward and fields redshirt sophomore Nick Vogel's kick at the 7-yard line, then he veers right as he approaches the 20-yard line.
“Everybody got blocked up," Dunner said. "[Junior cornerback] Marc [Walton] laid his head on the line, and he got smashed but great block by him. It was all she wrote from there.”
Dunner, who already scored a rushing touchdown in the first quarter, breaks through the hole Walton opened up and turns on the jets. Twelve seconds tick off the clock as he covers 93 yards for a touchdown and a 38-24 Ball State lead.
Dunner's return put the Cardinals in complete control as they won their home opener 51-31.
“Malik Dunner to take it to the house, man that was a great job," Ball State head coach Mike Neu said. "As soon as we lost a little bit of momentum, we took it right back again. So very proud of that, because that was really the turning point in the game for us.”
UAB went three-and-out on its next drive and lined up to go for it on fourth-and-1 from its own 35-yard line as the fourth quarter started.
Cardinals backup middle linebacker Jeremiah Jackson, who stepped in after starter Jacob White left the game with a hand injury, stopped Blazers freshman running back Spencer Brown for a 1-yard loss.
Ball State scored a few plays later, when junior running back James Gilbert took a sweep around the left side of the line for a 1-yard touchdown and a 45-24 lead.
UAB didn't even gat a chance at another drive — freshman linebacker David Reuth forced a fumble on the next kickoff.
Another Ball State first down deep inside Blazers territory, another touchdown. Freshman Justin Hall scored his first career touchdown on a 12-yard catch. The extra point was no good, but the Cardinals were ahead 51-24.
“We spend a significant amount of time during the course of the practice drilling special teams," Neu said. "It’s hard, because most of these young men, they all come here and all they think about is offense, or all they think about is defense. They don’t typically realize how significant and how much of an impact special teams make in determining the outcome of every game.”
For good measure, redshirt senior cornerback David Moore blocked a punt after UAB's next possession — another three-and-out.
Even though the Cardinals forced a string of three-and-outs late in the game, the Blazers gained 504 yards, including 336 on the ground. Ederly ran for 77 yards on 14 carries while passing for 168 yards. Brown ran for 151 yards on 17 carries, with his only negative run coming on the fourth quarter fourth-and-1.
“The Blazers were doing a good job with tempo," Neu said. "They kind of had us a little bit off-balance trying to substitute and they were dictating the pace a little bit there. So some of those big chunks they had were simply us getting caught a little tired, a little fatigued.”
Still, the Cardinals gained 377 yards, and three different running backs — Dunner, Gilbert and freshman Caleb Huntley — scored touchdowns.
Huntley's 52-yard touchdown was the first of his collegiate career. The second-quarter score put Ball State ahead 21-17 going into the half, and he led the Cardinals with 89 yards on 10 carries.
"I thought I was gonna get hit in the backfield, but [the offensive line] just kept blocking their man and I was able to fly downfield," Huntley said.
Ball State junior quarterback Riley Neal had a solid day as well, going 23-34 for 217 yards and two touchdowns. Hall led the Cardinals with eight catches for 94 yards.
"I thought I hit 100, but 94 yards, I can take that," Hall said. "Next game will be 100 yards.”
Redshirt sophomore Danny Pinter also caught the first touchdown pass of his collegiate career.
Junior kicker Morgan Hagee kicked a career-long 47-yard field goal in the third quarter, but missed a 30-yarder and an extra point in the fourth quarter.
But even with Hagee's inconsistency, even UAB head coach Bill Clark said Ball State's special teams unit was the difference.
"The kickoff return broke the game open," Clark said.
Ball State hosts Tennessee Tech for Family Weekend on Saturday, Sept. 16 at 3 p.m.