The Cardinals had it.

When their defense forced three consecutive turnovers that led to 17 points, they had it. When they responded to the Chippewas’ only first-half touchdown with one of their own right before the half ended, they had it. When they extended their lead to make it a three-possession game twice in the third quarter, they had it. They even had it when they were only up three points with just over five minutes to go.

Then, when they needed to have it most, they lost it.

“When you have the lead the way that we did and finish the second half the way that we did is disappointing,” Ball State head coach Mike Neu said. “I felt like we did a lot of good things there in the first half, but as we all know, you got to be able to finish the game, and we didn’t do that.”

Ball State (4-6, 3-3 MAC) players walked away from their contest with Central Michigan (7-4, 5-2 MAC) with heads hung low following a 45-44 defeat. The Cardinals had a 17-point lead three different times throughout the game and led for almost the entirety of the night.

Advantage Ball State

You didn’t miss much if you showed up after the first 15 minutes, as the Cardinals and Chippewas were tied after the first quarter, each with just a field goal. The second quarter was when Ball State started clicking on all cylinders.

In the team’s first defensive possession of the second frame, redshirt senior linebacker Jacob White made a diving catch moving to his left, marking the first interception of his career.

“I kind of just read the quarterback’s eyes,” White said. “He threw it to where I thought he was going to throw it, and I kind of made a break on it and just got underneath it.”

That play set the Cardinal offense up just 32 yards away from the end zone. After driving inside the 10-yard line, the Cardinals tried something that didn’t work a year ago against Notre Dame.

Redshirt senior offensive lineman Danny Pinter lined up on the right side. After faking a handoff and looking left for a moment, redshirt junior quarterback Drew Plitt dumped a backwards pass back to Pinter on his right. From there, the 300-pound former tight end barreled his way into the end zone, hugging the ball close to his chest the whole way.

“I was just trying to say calm and composed about it. If you overthink it, you’ll mess it up,” Pinter said. “We practice it a lot in practice, and we were just trying to run it how we did in practice … just trying not to let the moment be too big.”

In the defense’s next opportunity, White forced a fumble that was recovered by the Cardinals at Central Michigan’s 26-yard line. Five plays later, junior running back Caleb Huntley was in the end zone.

On the ensuing kickoff, the Cardinals forced another fumble, which led to a field goal to push their lead to 20-3.

Ball State went into halftime with a 27-11 lead and held a 41-24 cushion with 16 minutes left in the game.

“Offensively, we started to settle down, we started to execute, we had good balance, we were mixing it up well,” Neu said. “Defensively, we really did a great job in the first half of limiting them … We played a good football game in the first half.”

Advantage Central Michigan

Once Jonathan Ward scored his fourth touchdown of the game just before the end of the third quarter, it started to go downhill for Ball State. Despite the Cardinals still having a 10-point advantage, the momentum shifted in favor of the Chippewas.

The Cardinals punted to start the fourth quarter. After another punt and settling for a field goal, they found themselves only up six.

“We didn’t do ourselves any favor,” Neu said. “We didn’t capitalize on some of the opportunities that were presented, and we shot ourselves in the foot with the personal foul penalties and the lack of execution on our part.”

The Chippewas took the ball with five minutes to go and went to work. By the end of the drive, Tommy Lazzaro had scored his second touchdown of the quarter, and the extra point gave Central Michigan its first lead since 3-0 in the first quarter.

Ball State was left with just under a minute to score, and it couldn’t get anything going, throwing an interception on fourth-and-10. Three kneels later, the Chippewas escaped with a 45-44 victory.

“It’s definitely disappointing,” Pinter said. “We had big goals this year, and some of our goals are still attainable for sure, but this is a big one for us. To lose that way definitely hurts.”

With the loss, the Cardinals dropped out of contention for the Mid-American Conference Championship. There is still a possibility of a bowl appearance if they win out. Next up is Kent State in Ohio.

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