Lincoln, Neb. - After signing a contract worth $725,000 that was supposed to signify an easy victory for Nebraska, Ball State pushed the Cornhuskers to the brink of defeat Saturday.
Holding a nine-point lead with less than 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, it looked as though the Cardinals would beat its first opponent from a BCS conference in 35 attempts. However, Ball State was unable to put the final nail in the coffin, falling 41-40 at Memorial Stadium.
Following the game, coach Brady Hoke didn't focus on his team's ability to scare the Cornhuskers on the national stage. Rather, Hoke said the way his team was able compete made it hurt even more to not leave Lincoln with a program-defining victory.
"There's no morale victories," Hoke said. "Our kids work too hard 12 months a year. You go to win, and if you don't go to win, you might as well not play or coach. We had some opportunities and didn't capitalize on them. It's a tough pill to swallow because we had those opportunities."
Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller's third touchdown pass, an 11-yard completion to Maurice Purify, gave the Huskers a 41-40 edge with 3:13 left in regulation. On the ensuing drive, Ball State quarterback Nate Davis drove the offense into Nebraska territory in a desperate effort to get into field goal range.
With less than a minute remaining in regulation, Davis found his favorite target of the day, Dante Love, streaking across the middle of the field inside the Huskers' 15-yard line. However, the pass bounced out of Love's hands and fell incomplete. A completion would have resulted in a late go-ahead touchdown.
On the next play, a third and five from the Huskers' 38, Davis again looked down the field, this time to tight end Darius Hill. However, Hill was covered and the pass fell incomplete, setting up a fourth and five from Nebraska' 38-yard line.
Instead of going for the first down and moving into better position for a potential game-winning field goal, Hoke decided to send place kicker Jake Hogue onto the field to attempt a 55-yard kick. After two timeouts to freeze Hogue, who made a 65-yard field goal in Thursday's practice, the redshirt freshman's kick sailed wide left into the front row of Husker fans.
Though Hogue missed the field goal, Hoke said he didn't regret the decision to take the ball out of Davis' hands.
"I don't regret the decision at all," Hoke said. "I thought he was going to make it. I feel really good about him, and I think his confidence level is high. If we go for it on fourth down and don't make it we never give ourselves a shot. I thought we were within the right distance, we had the wind behind us, and he's got a good leg."
Though Ball State's offense finished with 610 total yards, its defense allowed 552 yards, including 438 passing yards. However, the Cardinals were able to make enough plays defensively to keep pace with Nebraska. Ball State forced three turnovers, including B.J. Hill's third interception of the season with Nebraska threatening to score.
B.J. Hill's interception came after he had been beaten on a 73-yard touchdown reception from Keller to Sean Hill. The Cardinals' offense capitalized on the turnover, going 96 yards in five plays for a touchdown that gave them a 37-28 lead with 12:50 left in the fourth quarter.
B.J. Hill said his interception not only boosted his confidence, but also gave a lift to the team.
"It was a timely play that we needed to make," B.J. Hill said . "It was definitely a boost to our defense because we were getting tired a little bit. So it was big for our football team to get the ball back to our offense."
It's the second time in many years Ball State has lost to a national opponent on the road by one possession. Last year, the Cardinals traveled to the University of Michigan and lost 34-26 after being stopped on a goal line stand by the Wolverines.
Ball State responded to the loss by winning its next two games to close out the 2006 season. Hoke said he expects his team to respond the same way this time.
"I like how our kids reacted after the football game," Hoke said. "We've got some hurting kids in the locker room right now, and I like that. That tells you that they're committed, and it hasn't always been that way. I thought today ... we let one get away."