It wasn't the ending to the season Ball State wanted, or the one coach Stan Parrish said he was expecting. But Saturday's 59-21 loss to Northern Illinois on Senior Day was befitting of Ball State's sometimes up, but mostly down season.
The Cardinals (4-8, 3-5) had a few chances to get back into the game after a very poor start, but couldn't make enough plays to keep up with the Huskies, the Mid-American Conference leaders. Instead, it was Northern Illinois (9-2, 7-0)making the big plays, blocking three punts, forcing three turnovers, making sure Ball State had no chance to spoil its chance to clinch a trip to the MAC Championship Game this week.
"Obviously, they're a very good team," Parrish said. "But you can't make it easy for them. Not a great day for us."
It was easy from the start of the game for the Huskies. The visitors scored on their first drive, slicing through the Cardinals for 69 yards in just six plays. Quarterback Chandler Harnish finished the drive with a 37-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Nathan Palmer, who had gotten behind the defense.
Though Ball State would catch a break when Northern Illinois missed a 42-yard field goal, it was clear which team was controlling the game.
"They scored on their first possession and that's my fault," safety Sean Baker said. "They got some momentum and it kind of snowballed."
Northern Illinois took a two-touchdown lead late in the first quarter when it blocked its first punt of the game and defensive back Jimmie Ward returned it 15 yards for a touchdown. It was the first of three punt blocks by the Huskies, mistakes that proved fatal for Ball State.
"That's unacceptable," Parrish said. "Our special teams had a rough, rough, rough day to say the least."
The Cardinals got within striking distance twice Saturday, but each time the Huskies responded with three touchdowns. To make matters worse, quarterback Keith Wenning was injured on the first play of the second quarter and did not return to the game.
Parrish said Wenning tried warming up on the sidelines, but couldn't run.
"He took a shot to the shoulders and the head and the quad," Parrish said. "He got sandwiched down there. He really got hit."
Backup Kelly Page filled in for the rest of the game, despite playing on an injured knee. Ball State scored all its points with Page on the field, starting on the play immediately after Wenning's injury when he handed off to running back Eric Williams for a two-yard touchdown run.
Page finished the game 7-of-13 for 131 yards. He threw an 80-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jack Tomlinson and was intercepted once, which Northern Illinois linebacker Tyrone Clark returned 16 yards for a touchdown.
While Page was critical of his own play, especially his interception, Parrish said he played well.
"Kelly went in and did a good job," he said. "He did a darned good job."
Page helped Ball State cut Northern Illinois' lead to 35-21 with 14 points at the start of the second half. After he threw the touchdown to Tomlinson, the Cardinals attempted an onside kick, but failed to recover.
The Huskies ripped off 24 unanswered points to end the game, starting on the ensuing possession when running back Chad Spann rushed for his third touchdown of the day.
It was the kind of performance expected from the best team in the MAC and a team receiving the 29th most votes in the country in both major polls. Coming into the game, Parrish said it would take Ball State's best game of the season to beat Northern Illinois. The Cardinals didn't play at that level, and the Huskies made them pay.
"I think they're danged good," Page said. "Their defense is pretty dang good; Chandler Harnish is a very good quarterback. I think he runs that offense perfectly. That Spann running back is good too.
"They beat us up."