Strong 2nd half lifts Ball State over Chippewas

<p>Junior running back Malik Dunner scores a touchdown during the game against Kent State Saturday, Sept 28, 2018, at Scheumann Stadium. Dunner scored the first touchdown of the game. Rebecca Slezak,DN</p>

Junior running back Malik Dunner scores a touchdown during the game against Kent State Saturday, Sept 28, 2018, at Scheumann Stadium. Dunner scored the first touchdown of the game. Rebecca Slezak,DN

Ball State Football (3-4, 2-1 MAC) found it rough sailing in the first half against Central Michigan (1-6, 0-3 MAC). The Cardinals found their groove in the second half, and a field goal would end up being the decider.

“My guys know how good MAC football is and how competitive it is and how on your game you have to be week in and week out,” head coach Mike Neu said. “There’s really no teams you look at and say, ‘That’s a weak team.’ There’s not. Everybody’s good, there’s a lot of purity.”

Other than a 2018 MAC-best 53-yard field goal made by Central Michigan’s Ryan Tice, the first quarter was uneventful. The Chippewas started to heat up in the second.

After flipping the field, the Chippewas added to their lead with another field goal, this one from 26 yards out.

The Cardinals got things going on the ensuing possession. Redshirt junior Riley Neal hooked up with junior Malik Dunner for a gain of 26 yards to move into Chippewa territory. Neal found redshirt senior Corey Lacanaria for 20 more yards on the next play to set up first-and-goal. 

After failing to reach the end zone on the next three plays, Neu decided to leave his offense on the field on fourth down. It would pay off, as Neal punched it in from the 1-yard line on a quarterback sneak. Neal finished the game with three total touchdowns and led the Cardinals in both passing and rushing yards.

“Riley’s a tough dude, and he competed and left it all on that field today,” Neu said. “Proud of him because he made some big throws and big plays with his legs.”

Just as soon as it looked like the Cardinals gained momentum, Central Michigan took it away. On the first play of the Chippewas’ drive, Romello Ross broke multiple tackles before breaking loose for a 47-yard gain. The six-play, 88-yard drive ended in an 18-yard touchdown reception by Tony Poljan.

Central Michigan kept it rolling on the defensive side, as a recovered fumble set the Chippewas up already on the Cardinals’ side of the field.

Poljan almost scored again with a 19-yard catch to the 1-yard line. Quarterback Tommy Lazzaro would subsequently run it in to put the Chippewas up 20-7. The score would remain as such for the rest of the half. 

Ball State got the scoring started in the second half when Neal connected with redshirt junior Riley Miller in the end zone. The Cardinals were helped out by two third-down penalties by the defense to keep the drive alive.

The Cardinal defense forced a quick punt, and Ball State would score on the following drive after 18-, 16- and 19-yard gains. Neal once again plowed forward at the goal line to give the Cardinals the lead for the first time since early in the second quarter.

The Chippewas would retake the lead with their third field goal of the game, marking Central Michigan’s first score of the second half.

“We always talk about doing simple better. In the first half we did not do simple better,” Neu said. “We did that better in the second half. We tackled, we had guys around the football and we made it much tougher in the second half.”

Ball State began its next drive with just over four minutes to play. The Cardinals used up a big chunk of time, methodically moving the ball downfield and forcing Central Michigan to spend its remaining timeouts.

Senior kicker Morgan Hagee trotted onto the field for a 36-yard field goal after having already missed a 48-yarder earlier in the game. He split the uprights to give the Cardinals a 24-23 lead with 47 seconds left.

The Chippewas couldn’t make anything happen, and Ball State walked away with its second conference victory of the season.

“That’s big for our guys because last year was a challenging year for us as a team,” Neu said. “When you’re able to win a close game like that, your guys know what that feels like. When you’re in one again in the fourth quarter, nobody’s panicking on the sideline.”

The Cardinals will play Eastern Michigan next to cap off Homecoming week in Scheumann Stadium Saturday, Oct. 20.

Contact Zach Piatt with comments at zapiatt@bsu.edu or on Twitter @zachpiatt13.

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