Ball State Football looks to rebound, aims for its first win against Eastern Michigan

<p>Ball State junior wide receiver Justin Hall lungs for the ball while being guarded by Indiana University sophomore defensive back Devon Matthews Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019 at Lucas Oil Stadium. The ball was not caught. <strong>Paige Grider, DN</strong></p>

Ball State junior wide receiver Justin Hall lungs for the ball while being guarded by Indiana University sophomore defensive back Devon Matthews Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019 at Lucas Oil Stadium. The ball was not caught. Paige Grider, DN

Following Ball State Football’s (0-1 MAC) 38-31 loss to Miami (Ohio) (1-0 MAC) Nov. 4, several of the team’s players told head coach Mike Neu the following day they felt as if they had just been in a “car crash.” 

“I don’t know how many of them have been in a car crash,” Neu said, “but it was amazing to hear….just the soreness that you simply don’t experience until you play in a physical game for four quarters. The number of ice bags you see on guys the day after….anything and everything, because you just haven’t experienced that for a long time.”

While Wednesday’s game marked the first competitive experience for the Cardinals in 341 days, just two days remain now for Ball State until it faces its second opponent in its six-game, conference-only 2020 schedule. The Cardinals welcome Eastern Michigan (0-1 MAC) to Scheumann Stadium for their home opener, Wednesday, Nov. 11 at 7 p.m. (CBS Sports Network). 

“Eastern Michigan has been very consistent — they’re a team that makes you earn it,” Neu said. “[Head] coach [Chris] Creighton has done a very good job in his time at Eastern Michigan. We’re going to get their best job — just like we do every year — but we have a lot of things we need to clean up.”

Ball State won last season’s game between the two teams, defeating the Eagles 29-23 in a second-half comeback in Ypsilanti, Michigan. The win snapped a three-game loss streak against Eastern Michigan, as the Cardinals lead the all-time series between both schools 35-24-2. 

Senior wide receiver Justin Hall led the Cardinals’ offense in last season’s victory, finishing with 109 receiving yards and a touchdown. 

“We gotta defend our home turf — we’ve got to get a W,” Hall said. “[Miami (Ohio)] was our only loss this season. I kid you not.”

Hall currently leads all Football Bowl Subdivision conference players with 212 career receptions. With the departure of former wide receiver Riley Miller this past offseason, Hall has emerged as one of three primary targets at wide receiver for redshirt senior quarterback Drew Plitt, along with graduate student Antwan Davis and junior Yo’Heinz Tyler.

Ball State redshirt senior wide receiver Corey Lacanaria gets tackled by Eastern Michigan University's Jaylen Pickett during the Cardinals' game against the Eagles Oct. 20, 2018 at Scheumann Stadium. Pickett had two solo tackles. Paige Grider, DN

While COVID-19 sidelined the Cardinals from practices this past spring, Hall said he believes the extended time off benefited Tyler’s game. Tyler finished with 66 receiving yards in last Wednesday’s loss — 22 short of his career high.

“He’s gotten so much better,” Hall said. “Whatever he was doing over quarantine definitely got him going. His route run is better, [his] hands are stronger. He’s just an overall better player than he’s ever been.”

As Miller’s departure has inherently boosted Tyler’s playing time, Hall said he has noticed an increase in confidence from Tyler throughout practices and competition. 

“I feel like with Riley [Miller] being there, [this] helped Yo’Heinz Tyler to have something to look up to,” Hall said. “He knows what’s going on, and he’s just been doing it. We think highly of him, and he thinks highly of himself.” 

Defensively, Ball State looks to recover after allowing 38 points in its loss to the RedHawks. The Cardinals’ defense took a blow in the second quarter of Wednesday’s game, as senior safety Bryce Cosby was disqualified after taking a hit on RedHawks’ sophomore quarterback Brett Gabbert.

The Cardinals will be without redshirt junior safety Ben Stewart this Wednesday, who is currently out with an injury. Neu described his progress as “week-to-week,” with no expected return date yet.

Redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Luke Martin is also out for the remainder of 2020 due to injury, Neu said. 

Graduate student outside linebacker Anthony Ekpe — who finished with four tackles and two sacks in Wednesday’s loss — is one of three defensive graduate transfers on this season’s squad, along with safety J.T. Wahee and defensive lineman Chris Agyemang. 

“We all set an example for other guys in the program,” Ekpe said. “We hold ourselves accountable as the older guys, just knowing that we’ve got to set the tone. We’ve got younger guys looking up to us, and the only thing we can do is live up to those expectations.” 

Having spent the previous seasons at Rice University, Ekpe will play in his first-ever game at Scheumann Stadium against the Eagles.

“It’s something I’m excited for,” Ekpe said. “Having this opportunity, it’s not something that’s given to everybody. Being a graduate transfer, I feel like you’ve got to be able to play your part and play your role.”

The Eagles are coming off a 27-23 loss to Kent State (1-0 MAC) Nov. 4. Eastern Michigan junior quarterback Preston Hutchinson passed 21-for-35, while junior wide receiver Hassan Beydoun finished with 112 receiving yards and nine receptions.

When the Cardinals take the field Wednesday, they will do so in front of as many as 500 Ball State students. Although the Mid-American Conference initially announced it would not allow fans in 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns, Ball State Athletics is allowing a limited number of students to attend while keeping stadium gates closed to the general public.

Contact Connor Smith with comments at cnsmith@bsu.edu or on Twitter @cnsmith_19. 

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