Ball State can't seal victory late as Eastern Michigan wins 48-41 shootout
Ball State — Final statistics
Rushing yards — 149
Passing yards — 393
Total yards — 542
Total yards allowed — 622
Turnovers — 5
3rd down efficiency — 2-13
This game had everything — the back-and-forth of Northern Illinois, the late comeback attempt of Central Michigan and the hot start of Akron. All of those components rolled into one, and yet, the outcome was the same.
A devastating loss.
Ball State (4-6, 1-5 MAC) raced out to a three-touchdown lead at home over Eastern Michigan (6-4, 3-3 MAC) Tuesday night, but the Eagles stole a 48-41 victory in wild fashion and earned bowl eligibility for the first time since 1995. The Cardinals now must win their final two games of the season to become bowl eligible.
They’ve been right there. Five of Ball State’s six Mid-American Conference games this season have been decided by 10 points or less.
Head coach Mike Neu said they just need to learn how to finish.
“We have to finish games when we have the opportunity, and we have to seize the moment when it presents itself,” Neu said. “You know the old saying, ‘Woulda, coulda, shoulda.’ Listen, we’ve gotta get it done.”
One area Neu talked all week about getting it done in is the turnover margin. Ball State came into the game with a -7 margin, second-to-last in the conference.
The Cardinals had a 3-0 edge at one point thanks to two Eagle fumbles and a trick-play interception, but still managed to lose the turnover battle 5-3.
“We can’t turn the ball over,” Neu said. “There’s plenty of guys that had a hand in where we’re at tonight. It’s not good enough. It’s gotta get fixed.”
Sophomore quarterback Riley Neal, returning to action after missing last week with a knee injury, accounted for three of those turnovers. He fumbled twice — once on a strip sack and another diving for the end zone 16-yard rush, and threw two interceptions.
“When you’re a quarterback, and you want to lead your team to wins, you have to eliminate the turnovers,” Neu said. “He’s a guy that has a ton of talent. Yes, there were a lot of good things that happened passing-game wise, but you can’t have turnovers.”
Neal was leaned on heavily as lead running back James Gilbert left the game with an injury to a lower extremity. And look, there was a lot of good.
Neal finished 30-52 for 393 yards and three touchdowns. He also kept it right end and ran in the go-ahead touchdown with 1:35 left on the clock.
His play of the year came earlier in the fourth quarter, though. Neal dropped back, and stepped up and to his right to escape a crowd of pass rushers. His hand even touched the ground at one point, but he stayed upright and scrambled right, finding senior Cywettnie Brown along the right sideline. Brown weaved through defenders the rest of the way for a 62-yard touchdown to cut the Eagles’ lead to 40-35.
Senior KeVonn Mabon, who was Neal’s top target with 12 catches, 149 yards and three total touchdowns (one rushing), said the team drilled a lot of deep balls coming into the game.
“Riley being confident and making some throws, you know he had a week off to watch some extra film and see things from a different perspective other than just in the pocket, and I think it helped him a lot,” Mabon said.
Eastern Michigan quarterback Brogan Roback tested the Ball State secondary on the deep ball early and often, throwing the ball an absurd 71 times.
He completed 37 of those attempts, finishing with 468 yards and three scores. The number of plays the Eagles ran made it tough for a defense that’s already dealing with injuries.
“It’s tough, especially when we’ve got three corners and three safeties right now that are dressed and able to play,” Neu said. “Every team has injuries, I’m not making any excuse. … You get worn down, you get tired. We’ve gotta do the best we can with the guys we have.”
Still, they were in a position to win the game. But an 8-play, 86-yard drive in 57 seconds sunk what could’ve been a huge win for the Cardinals.
It’s now or never for Ball State to get two more victories this season, but learning to win is more of a long-term commitment.
“That comes with 365 days a year, so when the season rolls around, we’ve learned that,” Neu said. “So when we’re in that situation, we know we’re gonna go get it done and be confident in that.”