After leading for the majority of the first half and late in the fourth quarter, Ball State (1-3, 0-0 MAC) fell to visiting Western Kentucky (1-3, 0-0 Conference USA), 28-20.
This game wrapped up non-conference play for the Cardinals, and head coach Mike Neu said the mindset has to shift to the Mid-American Conference season.
“The first four games—that chapter’s over, it’s written,” Neu said. “Our focus shifts totally to the Mid-American Conference now. We’re 0-0 in MAC play, and we start at home with Kent State next week.”
The Cardinals’ offense was lights out in its first drive of the game, putting seven points on the board after a 13-play, 80-yard march down the field. Redshirt junior quarterback Riley Neal had the hot hand early, completing all seven of his pass attempts totaling 68 yards in the first drive.
“I thought he threw the ball well,” redshirt senior receiver Corey Lacanaria said. “I think it was one of his best throwing performances. Specifically, when he threw it to me, it was on the money every time.”
Neal continued his hot start into the second drive and would finish the first quarter a perfect 9 for 9 with 92 yards.
Two consecutive Ball State punts later, and the Hilltoppers found themselves on the board. Davis Shanley connected with Lucky Jackson downfield for a 41-yard gain to set them up in the red zone. Five plays later Gino Appleberry Jr. punched it in to tie things up.
The Cardinals would answer, but not before some fireworks. Penalties on back-to-back plays put Ball State in a second-and-35 situation. A 10-yard completion set up third-and-25. Neal’s pass intended for sophomore Justin Hall was incomplete, but defensive pass interference was called. The Cardinals were given a first down and ended the drive with a field goal.
The Cardinals ended the game with 10 penalties, costing them a total of 120 yards. Neu said the number of flags against his team was costly and set them up in many poor situations on offense.
“I can’t remember the last time I’ve coached in a game where we’ve had double-digit penalties. That’s disappointing,” Neu said. “There were some situations that certainly caused us into some long yardage situations where we got behind the chains.”
Nothing came of the final 1:34 of the first half, and Ball State headed to the locker room up 10-7.
Neal went back to work to start the second half, completing three passes of 12 yards or longer and rushing for 28 on a third-and-20 in the Cardinals’ first drive. Ball State wound up with another field goal.
Steven Duncan entered the game at quarterback for the Hilltoppers in the following drive. He made an immediate impact, leading a methodical drive down the field which ended in Western Kentucky taking its first lead of the game. Duncan completed all five of his passes on the drive, including a touchdown, and rushed for 54 yards.
The Cardinals took back the lead in the fourth quarter when Neal found Lacanaria for a six-yard score. This was Lacanaria’s first touchdown since Ball State’s contest with Toledo in 2016.
The back-and-forth battle continued on the ensuing drive, as Duncan connected with Mik’Quan Deane for his second score of the day.
The Hilltoppers found the end zone again after a Cardinal three-and-out, pushing the score to 28-20 in WKU’s favor.
“Western Kentucky came to play today,” redshirt junior linebacker Jacob White said. “I thought we did too, but they were just the better team today.”
This left the Cardinals 59 seconds to go 75 yards and make good on a two-point conversion.
Neal found redshirt junior Riley Miller for a 34-yard gain. A pass interference call moved the Cardinals even closer, leaving time for one last desperation pass to the end zone. The ball was batted to the ground, and the Hilltoppers walked away with their first win of the season, 28-20.
“I knew they were going to try to tip it forward and down, so I tried to get in front of them so maybe I could find the ball,” Miller said. “They ended up tipping it out to the side, and nobody could get to it.”
Neal ended the game with 285 yards and passed Neu on Ball State’s all-time passing yardage list. Miller led the Cardinals in receiving with 112 yards, and Lacanaria added a career-high 99.
The Cardinals will begin MAC play next week at home against Kent State.
Contact Zach Piatt with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @zachpiatt13.