FOOTBALL: Ball State overcomes Opening Night scare with third-quarter burst

Cardinals use a heavy rushing attack in victory

Opening Night started exactly the way Stan Parrish scripted it lying awake in his bed Wednesday night.

Ball State took an early lead when Cory Sykes walked into the end zone on the game's first drive, and the Cardinals appeared to be on their way to an easy first victory of the season.

While the final score would show Ball State defeated Southeast Missouri State 27-10, a comfortable margin, it wasn't able to coast after the first drive like it seemed would happen.

Ball State's defense was overmatched on the first drive by Southeast Missouri State's short passing and option offense. The Cardinals couldn't get anything going offensively and limped back into the locker room at halftime with the game tied at seven.

What was supposed to be a walkover was quickly becoming a scare for the Cardinals.

"We had a long talk at halftime about where we were going," Parrish said. "I said we had no option but to win the game. If we're going in the right direction and want to get ‘all in' like we talk about, we have to do it now."

Ball State came out for the second half reenergized and focused. There would be no upset for Southeast Missouri State, no chance Ball State would lose back-to-back games against Football Championship Subdivision teams. The Cardinals scored 17 unanswered points in the third quarter and sailed to victory in front of 10,753 fans at Scheumann Stadium.

Starting the year with a win was paramount for a team that had to wait eight weeks for its first taste of victory last fall. The win, however, might have meant the most to quarterback Kelly Page.

As a freshman, Page lost the first seven games last fall before his season was cut short because of a broken thumb. He was forced to watch from the sidelines as the Cardinals won two of their final five games.

So when Page relieved Keith Wenning, his backup, Thursday night to take a knee, it was an emotional moment.

"Words can't describe how much better this feels than last year," he said. "When I got the ball, I wanted to keep it, but the ref made me give it back to him."

Playing the role of game manager, Page directed an offense that relied on its running backs. The Cardinals ran the ball 55 times for 243 yards. It was the most rushing attempts by Ball State since it ran the ball 57 times last year at Eastern Michigan. MiQuale Lewis and Cory Sykes combined for 504 yards in that game, and Lewis set the school single-game rushing record.

Parrish talked all offseason about running the ball more and the creative ways he would get as many of his talented running backs on the field at once. But it still was a shock for the coach once nicknamed "Air Parrish" to call for so many running plays.

"I told [my assistants] during the week, ‘Hit me over the head with a bat if you have to, but make me keep running the ball,'" Parrish said.

Run the ball, they did. Sophomore Eric Williams led the way with 20 carries and 105 yards and a touchdown. Cory Sykes had 14 attempts for 72 yards and two touchdowns.

It was Williams' first career 100-yard rushing game, though he dismissed the feat, calling it a "team effort."

Page also wanted to shine the spotlight on his teammates, thanking his offensive line.

"Our offensive line did an amazing job tonight," he said. "I want to give them the fullest credit."

The offensive line played a key role in the Cardinals' dominant third quarter. Suddenly, holes opened against a weary Redhawks front seven. Ball State rushed for 155 yards in the second half, and Page said he was never hit while he was throwing.

It was the kind of game the 2009 Cardinals were unable put together. The ability to put teams away in the second half is something Ball State worked on all offseason. Parrish said he was happy to see his team growing up in front of his eyes, no longer looking around for the stars of 2008 to save the day.

"I told them after the game ‘I don't know if we would have won this game,'" he said. "I don't know if we were tough enough yet. I don't know if we were together enough yet. The ghost is gone."


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