In Ball State’s season opener against Indiana at Lucas Oil Stadium, sophomore A.J. Uzodinma and junior Antonio Phillips came away with the team’s first two interceptions of the year.
Eight weeks later, the Cardinals’ starting cornerbacks are in a battle for the top spot on the Mid-American Conference’s interception list.
When Uzodinma snatched his MAC-leading third pass of the season Oct. 5 at Northern Illinois, Phillips was still stuck at one. Slowly but surely, Phillips started to creep back, picking off a pass in the next three games. When Phillips intercepted a ball thrown right to him in the first quarter on a rainy day where it was hard to grip the ball, he sat alone atop the conference with four.
“I didn’t even know I had passed him,” Phillips said. “I’m glad it was my own teammate. I can kind of give him stuff, and we can keep going back and forth about that.”
Uzodinma said he knew Phillips had passed him as soon as it happened, and he was itching to come right back with one of his own.
“I was super psyched when I saw him get it,” Uzodinma said. “I talked to him on the sideline. I was like, ‘OK, yeah, I’m going to come catch you now.’”
Uzodinma got his chance in the second quarter on a 50-50 ball down the left sideline. He jumped with the receiver, but the ball deflected off his arms and fell to the ground. He walked away from the play showing emotion — yelling, shaking his head and clapping his hands as if to say, “I should have had that one.”
While he thought about the missed opportunity to catch Phillips after the game, Uzodinma said, all he was worried about in the moment was helping his offense.
“I was trying to catch him today, but I didn’t,” Uzodinma said. “I was really just [trying to get] the interception to get the ball for the team.”
Uzodinma said this friendly competition isn’t just for the cornerbacks. The safties, junior Bryce Cosby and senior Ray Wilborn, each have a pair of interceptions on the season. When Cosby picked off his second pass two weeks ago, Uzodinma was already jawing at him in the game.
“The Eastern Michigan game with Bryce, I was like, ‘Alright, if you catch up to me, I got something for you.’ Just good competition. At the end of the day, that’s going to help us win — just having that inner team competition like that.”
The Cardinals lead the MAC with 12 interceptions. Phillips credits that to their hard work in practice, especially during a drill specifically dedicated to taking the ball away. At the end of the day, he said, that’s the defense’s job — get the ball back to the offense.
“We all want the ball when it’s in the air,” Phillips said. “Whether I get it, Bryce gets it, Ray, A.J. — whenever the ball is in the air, and we can take it and get the ball back to our offense, it’s an accomplishment for us.”