Neal's late turnovers stall Ball State comeback attempt
They had their chances.
Down by three with 2:12 left, Ball State got the ball back with a timeout it didn't end up needing. Three passes and a run later, the Cardinals were on the Chippewas' 29-yard line with enough time to run anything in the playbook.
But they didn't take their time. Junior Central Michigan corner Amari Coleman bit on an out-route, and freshman Damon Hazelton went deep down the left sideline as Coleman tried to recover.
Ball State — Game statistics
Rushing yards — 166
Passing yards — 174
Total yards — 340
Third-down conversions — 11-16
Turnovers — 2
Total yards allowed — 422
Sacks-yards — 5-46
Sophomore quarterback Riley Neal lobbed it up, both players jumped and then ... a deafening cheer from the remainder of the 20,044 fans at Kelly/Shorts Stadium. Neal's second interception ended the comeback attempt, as Central Michigan ran the clock out on a 24-21 win over Ball State (3-3, 0-2 MAC).
"We did a good job of executing the two-minute drive, and unfortunately, underthrew the go route," head coach Mike Neu said. "We'll look at the tape. It was just a missed opportunity."
Neal's first turnover came in a similar situation earlier in the fourth quarter.
The Cardinals were down 17-14, and he scrambled right on the first play of the drive. Looking for his favorite target, Neal's pass sailed over the head of 6-foot-3 senior KeVonn Mabon and into the arms of Chippewas junior defensive back Josh Cox, who ran 33 yards down the left sideline for a touchdown.
Neal finished 18-30 for 174 yards with a touchdown, while raising his interception total to six this season. Neu put it simply -- he's got to be better.
"You can't make excuses for the guy," Neu said. "You can spin it any way you want, but the bottom line is when the play presents itself, you gotta execute. You're not a freshman anymore, I told him that I expect more from him. Those mistakes can't be tolerated."
It just happens in the flow of the game, Neal said, but he knows he has to give the receiver a chance in the situations like those.
"Just two balls that got away from me," he said.
Neal wouldn't have gotten those chances if it weren't for the halftime adjustments by the defense. The Cardinals were outgained 223-5 in the second quarter alone, including a 4-play, 78-yard touchdown drive that spanned 25 seconds at the end of the first half to put the Chippewas up 17-7.
Junior running back Devon Spalding broke off a 63-yard run on that drive, one of two 50+ yarders for him on the day.
Ball State brought the pressure and shut out Central Michigan's offense in the second half, however, sacking quarterback Cooper Rush five times for a loss of 46 yards. Rush finished 21-32 for 269 yards and a touchdown.
"It was a good plan by coach [Tim] Daoust," said senior defensive end Anthony Winbush, who led the team with two sacks. "He talked to us in the locker room to start getting after it. And I just got there."
After Central Michigan's lone touchdown of the second half, it was sophomore James Gilbert taking the offense into his own hands. He ran 27 times for 141 yards and two touchdowns — the second of which cut the deficit to 24-21.
Unlike last week against Northern Illinois, where Ball State punted with seven minutes left and never got the ball back, the defense got a late stop with 2:12 left. The offense had its chance to match, but in the end, just didn't take advantage of it.
"It's on us," Neu said. "It's up to us. You can point the finger at anybody you want to, but it starts with me. When you have an opportunity to execute, you have to make the plays that come your way."