Cardinals crowned MAC West co-champs, Merriweather breaks school record

KALAMAZOO, MICH - After starting the season with an 0-4 record, the football team did just what it has said it would do all season -- win a Mid-American Conference West title.

Well, at least part of one.

After defeating Western Michigan Saturday with a final score of 35-31, Ball State claimed a MAC West co-championship crown, sharing the title with Northern Illinois and Toledo. All three teams have lost one divisional game this season.

"Coach preached all week that we still had a shot to become co-champs," Ball State quarterback Talmadge Hill said. "We studied hard and I thought we played hard."

For Hill and several others involved with Ball State football, Saturday's game was more than a chance at a West title.

"We wanted to win the last one and send the seniors out with a win," Hill said.

"I've been here for five years fighting for this one goal," senior Mark Zackery said of the team's co-championship.

The group of fifth year seniors on the team had never beaten Western Michigan until Saturday.

"It's a great win for our kids," Ball State coach Bill Lynch said. "They have been through a lot. A little over a year a go we had a 21-game losing streak, and these kids have really turned it around."

Western Michigan's head coach was impressed with Ball State's performance Saturday and realized what a big game it was to the Cardinals.

"You have to be congratulatory towards Ball State," Gary Darnell said. "They take a lot of pride that they have their program turning around and I'm a big Bill Lynch fan. They played hard and they just found a way to win."

Ball State's co-championship didn't come without a strong fight from Darnell and his team as the game dwiddled down to the final drive of the game.

At the half it was the Broncos who lead the game with a score of 17-14. But, in the third quarter, Ball State regained control with two big plays from sophomore quarterback Hill.

With a 57-yard pass to Jamar Cottee and a 27-yard pass to Jon Eckert, the Cardinals captured the lead, 28-17 in the third quarter.

Western Michigan did not give up however. With a little over five minutes remaining in the contest, Bronco quarterback Jon Drach connected with both Darnell Jennings and Antonio Thomas for 4- and 22-yard touchdown passes, respectively.

It was then that the Cardinal offense proved most impressive for the afternoon. With 3:44 remaining in the game, tailback Marcus Merriweather capped off a four-play drive that lasted only one minute and 28 seconds.

The drive began with a 41 yard pass from Hill to senior Corey Parchman, who entered the game as the No. 2 kickoff returner in the nation.

Following Parchman's reception, Scott Volk ran the ball for 13 yards, followed by a seven-yard run by Merriweather and then the five yard run.

Lynch believed the entire drive was set up with the field position after Western Michigan kicked the ball out of bounds, placing the ball on the 35-yard line after the penalty.

Merriweather's touchdown wasn't the only bright sport for the junior runner, however. He put his mark on the Ball State football record books by taking over first place for most yards in a single season.

Coming into the game, Merriweather had 1,165 yards and the record, set by Tony Nibbs in 1994, was 1,120.

Merriweather rushed for a total 79 yards, putting him 24 yards over the record.

"He's a tough guy," Lynch said of his workhorse. "There have been some tailbacks at Ball State but to own that record as a junior, that tells you something."

One of the Cardinals senior captains for the season, Zackery, shared Lynch's feelings regarding Merriweather.

"Marcus is a great player," Zackery said of his teammate. "He's been knocked and banged up a little bit these past couple of weeks but you wouldn't know it watching him on the field.

"If you are going to be a part of the game that touches the ball as much as he does, then you have to be a big time player and that's what he is."

He broke the record on Ball State's second possession of the third quarter, just one play before Hill connected with Cottee for that 57-yard touchdown.

Also contributing to Saturday's win was Jon Eckert who, as he did against Northern Illinois last Saturday, led the team in receptions with six catches for 75 yards and one touchdown.

"Most of the time I go in as a blocker," Eckert said. "Now people are looking at me as a receiver.

"It feels good to be able to contribute to the big win today. I've been hoping to get my chance all year and finally it has been put in front of me."

Lynch said that making Eckert part of the game plan has been in the making, and that now the plays that involve the 242 lbs. junior are coming about.

"We just started getting it to him," Lynch said. "We felt all along that he could make some plays. It was just a matter of getting some plays in the offense to find him."

With his pass to Eckert and several others throughout the day, Hill tallied 284 yards and three touchdowns on the day -- this after struggling with three interceptions last Saturday against Northern Illinois.


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