Trailing winless Akron by seven points in overtime and facing a fourth-and-nine from the 24-yard line Saturday, Keith Wenning threw over the middle of the field. He was hoping for something of a miracle from Jack Tomlinson, his favorite receiver.
Tomlinson, however, was covered. The ball was tipped by a defender and bounced into Tomlinson's hands. The freshman grabbed the ball and twisted over the goal line. It was his third touchdown catch of the game, and kept the Cardinals alive for a second overtime. Tomlinson's magical reception gave Ball State (3-7, 2-4) the momentum it needed to finish the game, and come away with a 37-30 victory in front of 5,377 fans at Scheumann Stadium.
Wenning was hit after he threw and was still flat on his back when Tomlinson pushed his way into the end zone.
"I didn't see it happen," Wenning said. "But I heard it was a heck of a catch."
Tomlinson had 175 receiving yards, the 12th highest total in Ball State history and the most since Dante Love had 177 against Indiana in 2007. Tomlinson said he just wanted to make a play in overtime.
"The linebacker dropped back and tried to catch it," he said. "But he was out of position and I knew he couldn't catch it. So I just waited until he tipped it to me."
Such an improbable play was followed with another in the second overtime. Wenning was running away from defenders when he saw tight end David Schneider wide open. Schneider was the third option on the play for Wenning, but he turned out to be the best one.
As Wenning was driven to the ground yet again, he delivered a wobbling ball to Schneider who turned the pass into a 19-yard touchdown, the first of his career. The catch was just the third of Schneider's career, but he knew he could make the play.
"All this week we've been working on it," he said. "I now the majority [of the time] I'm a run blocker, but I can catch the ball."
Schneider was only in the game for that play because tight end Aaron Mershman suffered a concussion in the first half. Linebacker Tony Martin was concussed and had to be taken away in an ambulance. Coach Stan Parrish said Martin returned to the locker room after the game, and might be able to play next week.
Schneider's touchdown gave Ball State's defense a seven-point lead to hold for one more possession. Akron was unable to do anything offensively with its final chance. Quarterback Patrick Nicely fired two incomplete passes before he was intercepted on third down by safety Josh Howard to end the game.
The victory snapped the Cardinals' four-game losing streak and prevented it from losing to a winless team for the second time in four weeks. Akron has lost 10 games in a row, the longest streak in the country.
Eastern Michigan had already snapped its 18-game losing streak on Oct. 18 at Ball State. Parrish said he often thought back to that loss Saturday.
"I'd look up [at the scoreboard] and go ‘You've got to be kidding me,'" he said. "It's hard to keep the demons out of your head when you've had a lot of demons. We haven't had much go right for us in a long period of time."
The win wasn't easy for Ball State, as it turned the ball over on its first three possessions and trailed 7-0 after the first quarter. But the Cardinals rebounded to score 16 unanswered points, before giving back the nine-point lead just before the fourth quarter.
With the game tied and Wenning briefly sidelined with an arm injury, backup quarterback Kelly Page found Tomlinson for a 49-yard touchdown, giving Ball State the lead. But again, the Cardinals couldn't hold the lead.
With 1:36 to play, Zips quarterback Patrick Nicely completed a 53-yard drive with an 11-yard touchdown pass to tie the game. Akron then took the lead in the first overtime when Nicely threw a 22-yard touchdown, his fourth of the day. The sophomore started the game with just three touchdown passes all season.
But Ball State was able to dig out a much-needed victory on a cold, November day. Left to play with nothing but pride as the season comes to its conclusion, the Cardinals relished the opportunity to sing fight song with few fans that remained on each side of Scheumann Stadium.
"I know that they feel happy," Parrish said. "You go in the locker room and you'd think we just won the MAC Championship."