Cards finish season as division co-champs

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 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 sophomore 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 ago 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 dwindled 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 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.

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 a minute and 28 seconds.

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 -- 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. "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."


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