Ball State played Western Kentucky on Sept. 23 at Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium. The Cardinals lost 21-33.
Ball State football's comeback bid against Western Kentucky falls short
Jack Milas isn't trying to deflect any blame.
With Ball State trailing Western Kentucky 26-21 late in the fourth quarter, the senior quarterback lined up in a shotgun formation on third-and-10 from the Cardinals' 24-yard line. He dropped back and tried to escape the pressure, rifling a pass near the first-down marker.
Hilltoppers senior cornerback Joe Brown jumped the pass and returned it for a touchdown with 1:13 remaining in the game. It was the final score of Ball State's 33-21 loss.
Passing yards: 267
Rushing yards: 107
Third down: 3-12
Passing yards: 319
Rushing yards: 52
Third down: 7-14
“We were really confident going into that drive that we were going to go down and score," Milas said. "We didn’t get off to a good start that drive, I think it was third and 10 and I just tried making play. I should’ve not. I should’ve let ‘em [sack me], or just threw it away and look for another down. I kind of just forced it.”
Milas started for injured junior quarterback Riley Neal, going 18-36 for 276 yards with two interceptions. Junior running back James Gilbert and redshirt senior offensive lineman Vinnie Palazeti also sat out with injuries.
Head coach Mike Neu, however, took responsibility for the loss.
“Sure you miss those guys,” Neu said. “You miss their experience. It’s hard to replace that. But our job as coaches is to make sure our men are always prepared, and things happen to every team. It’s not just us, every team has injury situations that they have to deal with and the next man has to be ready to go.”
Still, the offense was different with Milas in the game. Milas only completed 50 percent of his passes to Neal's season rate of 67.7 percent, but he also took more shots downfield — even with all of the incomplete passes, he averaged 7.4 yards per attempt where Neal averages 6.7 yards per attempt.
“You might do a few more things that are run-pass options with Riley than you would with Jack," Neu said. But really for the most part, with passing game concepts we do a lot of the same things with Jack."
Even with a different quarterback under center, freshman receiver Justin Hall led the way in both receptions and receiving yards for the third week in a row. He finished with 5 catches for 98 yards.
Sophomore running back Malik Dunner paced the Cardinals on the ground with 57 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries, adding 54 receiving yards on two catches. Freshman running back Caleb Huntley had 15 carries for 44 yards and two touchdowns.
Western Kentucky redshirt senior quarterback Mike White was the first quarterback to top 300 yards against Ball State's defense, going 28-44 with 319 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.
His arm also led the Hilltoppers to a 17-7 halftime lead, passing for 196 yards and a touchdown in the first half, though redshirt junior linebacker Damon Singleton intercepted one of his passes in the red zone.
But in the second half White was limited to 123 yards and was sacked three times. He also threw another red zone interception, this one hauled in by freshman safety Bryce Cosby.
In fact, Western Kentucky only scored three touchdowns in eight red-zone attempts.
"Our defense did a good job of keeping us in the game until we could get going a little bit there in the second half," Neu said. "They did a good job with turnovers, the critical turnovers in the red zone there."
Singleton, who led the Cardinals with nine tackles, said Ball State's halftime adjustments helped keep the game competitive.
“We made a lot of different coverage adjustments to help the corners out and we played more games up front with the D-line so they could get free and make sacks," Singleton said.
Ball State finished the game with four sacks, including one from defensive end Anthony Winbush. The redshirt senior entered the game leading the NCAA with 6.5 sacks, but he didn't bring White down until the fourth quarter.
The Hilltoppers also struggled to get the run going, totaling just 52 rushing yards on 30 attempts — less than half of the Cardinals' 107 yards on 31 carries.
And in fairness to Milas, he was nearly the hero.
Ball State trailed 20-14 with 6:54 to go and the ball on its own 41-yard line. Milas connected with sophomore receiver Antwan Davis for nine yards on first down, then on second-and-1 he completed a 30-yard pass to freshman receiver Justin Hall to move the Cardinals into the red zone.
After an incomplete pass, Milas then threw a ball where only Davis could catch it. It was high — Davis made an acrobatic play to jump, snag the ball and tap his toe inbounds — but it put Ball State on Western Kentucky's 4-yard line.
Huntley then scored a 3-yard rushing touchdown to put the Cardinals ahead 21-20.
But the Hilltoppers marched downfield on an 80-yard drive, capped by freshman running back Jakari Moses's 4-yard touchdown run. They didn't get the two point conversion, but the 26-21 lead was enough.
“Disappointed, obviously, to come on the road and have the opportunity there with the one-point lead in the fourth quarter and not be able to finish the deal," Neu said. "Just disappointed.”
Ball State opens Mid-American Conference play at Western Michigan (2-2) Sept. 30. at 7 p.m.